There’s another column about Challenge #1 coming up, but I’ll "spoil" it a bit by noting Lou Bank was the only publisher’s rep to ever take the offer up. I still try from time-to-time these days to get people to do it.
Challenge #2 worked for something like a year before I realized I was doing all of the work, and was really only sending out my own ideas. Since that was utterly not the point, I killed the whole thing.
TILTING AT WINDMILLS #12
By Brian Hibbs
This is the first column of 1993 (for me -- you're probably reading this in March or so), and this is a serious column. As an industry this new year is bringing us new challenges. I'm here to put my money where my mouth is with two of my own to the industry, each of which is going to involve a shitload of work for me, in addition to running my store, and will, no doubt, win me very little affection.
Both of these involve my contentions that we need to be more responsible to our marketplace (retail and non-retail), and that we need to encourage efficient communication between all levels (consumer, retailer, distributor, publisher, and creator). Sure, some of us are talking back and forth, within our groups, but we need to create industry-wide lines of communication that will benefit us all.
Enough preamble. Read the challenges, and I'll wrap up at the bottom.
* TaW challenge #1: Publishers going to "retailer school"
I think it's fairly clear that nearly every publisher, in one way or another, is out of touch with how, and why, retailers work the way we do (sadly, the same can be said of many of us retailers, as well...). The information that the publisher receives only shows them a) raw numbers, based on nationwide orders by retailers, that does not necessarily relate in any realistic way to what the end-consumers may be actually buying, b) direct communication with a small numbers of retailers, many of whom are either telling them what the want to hear, or working their own agendas, or c) contact with consumers at conventions and the like, which is, of course, a skewed picture of what happens in the stores, or the market as a whole. Now there's got to be a way to help fill out the larger picture, for publishers to get their fingers on the "pulse" of the market, filtering out both the retailers sensibilities, and their own pre-conceived notions. This will, I believe, help the publishers focus promotional efforts to programs that are actually useful and directed, and help them see what the consumers are actually buying, not what they think (based on national orders) they're buying. So here's the '93 TaW Publisher challenge:
Work in a retail store for a week.
Yeah, I know it's a bizarre idea. But, I think that the information you'll absorb from working the nuts and bolts end of the business will prove invaluable. Most of the Publisher's marketing efforts, and title decisions are made without the input of anyone besides those pre-disposed to contact you (the old saw that positive mail always outnumbers negative mail. Someone with a negative opinion is far less likely to say anything, and just leave, rather than bothering to register their opinions). I'm constantly surprised by the new information that I learn every day by directly speaking to the customers. Think how much more you can pick up, by being 2 steps closer.
Why do I think this is important? Primarily because I see so many programs and items purported to be aimed at the retailers, that when observed from my eyes accomplish nothing or less. We have an unhealthy market right now, where due to the sloth or foolishness of retailers, what is being sold-in is not necessarily being sold-through; where people aren't viewed as customers, but as consumers – and I think we can still stem the tide of greed, if we want to. What do you have to gain from it? I mean, a week is a lot of time! You have knowledge to gain, information that can't be seen by looking at a national graph. The forest may be beautiful from miles away, but you have to ensure that the individual trees are healthy, if there's to be a forest in the future.
An important note: this is NOT designed to be a direct promotional tool (like, Valiant's Trading Places contest). There's certainly nothing wrong with running promotional events, but any information gained from there is going to be skewed by the knowledge that is what it is.
So, any real publisher (let's define this as having published at least a dozen different titles since you've been in business) is hereby invited to contact me, and set up a time for themselves, or one of their trusted minions to come and work in my store for a week. I'll walk you through cycles sheeting, order forms, racking and promotion (on a practical level), actually selling directly to the consumer, and the dozens of other "behind the scenes" things that make a retail store work. Harbor no illusions: this will be work! You'll be a grunt, a simple counter-person, and no one's gonna know you're a publisher representative. The only thing I ask is that you come with an open mind, ready to try to fathom why we do thing the way we do. I also think this can be a two-way street. Every store in the world can benefit from having a fresh pair of eyes viewing it from the inside-out. I'm sure that for everything you learn, I'll learn 2 more things.
I suppose the question then becomes: why my store? After all, my store skews differently from most (though I'd only hope that it is the type of target audience that we'd all like to see, in the long-run), and I'm an opinionated S.O.B.. But getting past all that, I'm not trying to curry any favors, and I've got no ulterior motives. Hell, I'll probably make far more enemies than allies from this (but, hey! I like living on the edge!) My store will be open to you, my books will be open to you, and my customers will be open. I don't want an ear higher-up, I don't want special treatment from anyone, and I'm not going to color the picture that your company is the best thing since sliced bread. My customers will not know who you are, so you won't be answering a bunch of questions about you publishing plans, or asked to look at portfolios. You'll be no more (or no less) than another member of the staff, trying to balance both of our pre-conceived notions of what the market is, or can be, with cold reality.
Frankly, I'd rather that this was opened to the rest of the industry, but at this moment, right now, I'm the only one making the offer. Those retailers that are reading this, and want to make the same offer, I beseech you to do so. The more shades and depths of opinion we can get, the better educated we all can be. I think that this could be a pilot program for the entire industry, with many different strata of retail operations and publishers learning and sharing their information, unfiltered through bureaucracy. As I said, this is a 2-way street. I want you to challenge my assumptions as much as I challenge yours. There is no doubt that none of us have all the information and knowledge that we need to stay healthy, and to help grow our market for the future. I want to forge a tool to help us build our industry.
As of this writing, I've found a volunteer from Marvel to start this program with me. Yep! Big, bad Marvel, with whom I've had many a flame war, and confrontation with in the past (and no doubt the future as well), sees the value in open communication, whether or not I am their audience. Hopefully my plea won't fall on deaf ears, for what this industry needs is more knowledge and more communication. What's a week of your time balanced against the future of
Can either of us, retailer or Publisher afford to not take that time to build our tomorrow?
* TaW Challenge #2: The Alliance
Over the course of the last year or so I've become aware that there are a lot of articulate, informed retailers out there fighting grass-roots battles to change and transform our industry. We're each cultivating our own gardens, trying to nurture what we find good, and weed out the elements that (to really stretch the metaphor) soak up all the sunlight. The problem is that we're mostly doing it alone. Sure, we meet, in twos and threes, more often by happenstance than by plan. A lot of us are small stores, struggling in a vacuum of self-imposed solitude, not knowing who, or even how, to talk to others; a lot of us are managers of locations owned by others, striving to turn around the inertia of standing store policies (that did make sense when they were instigated half a decade ago) holding back it's full potential, fighting the two-front battle of customers and owners; and some of us want to change things, but haven't the tools, or the resources to pull it off themselves (lord knows I fall into that category a lot, meself) -- they need to work with others, co-operatively, to hit their stride.
Here's what I'm proposing:
The creation of a list of retailers willing to participate in promotional efforts, both between themselves, and with others. If I decide it would be really great to have Dave McKean in for a signing, but am unable to scrape up the funds for a transcontinental flight, I can turn to a list of 50, or 100, or 1000 retailers who I know are predisposed to working together. Will each of them want to work with me, on every project? Probably not. But, at least I have a working knowledge of who to try. Let's say an artist decides that he wants to go to the San Diego Comic Con (he lives on the East Coast), and can't afford it. Boom! He's got an index of dedicated stores, to arrange his travel expenses through, in exchange for a signing. I created a cool display or promotion that I want to share? Sure I could send it here to Comics Retailer, but if it's time sensitive, it may not work out. Here's a resource list, targeting people who are more likely than not to use it. You're a publisher who wants to send out promotional items, but you haven't the funds to try to scattershot 6,000+ stores? You've got a direct line to the stores that are, more likely than not, going to use the things. The uses of this are limitless, controlled only by our efforts (previews of upcoming work: control your orders better, and build advance support; An open network for distribution of Ashcans; Clearer channels of communication for information that affects all of us; etc.)
That's about it. A network, an alliance, a list of people willing to work for all our benefits.
This type of structure is inclusive, rather than exclusive. That's the charm of it. Any retailer is welcome, because what you'll get out is what you put in. If you don't make the effort, others won't work with you. The opportunities are what you make of them.
I contend we need an alliance of these stores, a confederation of interests, if you like, for we're not adequately represented by the extant organizations: CBRI (personally, I don't find anything particularly useful in hawking bad mainstream comics to 12 year olds on top-40 stations, or getting some actors to dress up as Ren & Stimpy. 'tain't nothing wrong with this, but it ain't my cuppa tea) or the DLG (which isn't generally open to membership, anyway).
In fact, exactly what we don't need is another organization. I envision this like, well, the Defenders. A Non-Team. A pool of talent, as it were, working together for the common good. Bring your ideas, but leave your agendas at home. Work in big groups, little groups, whatever you like, it acts as a central mailing list, an information list, a resource for us all to affect our environment.
I think we need this non-group because we need to create clear lines of communication between both ourselves, and the creative community. One the most exciting ideas for me, is to clearly link this organization into the creators, most of whom are anxious to promote their work, but are stymied by the barriers put up by publishers and distributors. Realistically, we are the creator’s true customers. We make the decisions that make their books available, or not; we determine whether they succeed or fail, or whether they can continue to afford to create the merchandise we depend on. And they need to be able to access us, to get our input on what we need to make their work sell better, to arrange local and regional publicity, and to be able to view us as an ally, not an enemy.
So, I'm asking for a call to arms. I want to create a coalition of retailers who care, who want to make the difference, and the names and facts I gather will be available to all, on any level of the industry. I'll work as the central mailer for the first year, then pass the baton to someone else. We'll attempt to have some form of meeting (however informal) at the San Diego con this year. And we want you to join!
Is this for you? Here's my loose criteria:
* Are you open to new promotional ideas?
* Are you willing to experiment, and possibly lose money in the short-term, on projects you believe in?
* Are you willing to expend effort to work directly with creators (and not to be a fanboy!) to promote their work specifically?
* Do you value Art over Commerce (though, of course, the goal is that the Art provides the Commerce)?
* Are you willing to fight whatever injustices you may find in our industry whenever possible?
* Are you, ultimately, in the business for Love of, and Passion for the Form? or is it just a Money thing?
If this describes your attitudes to your store, then send me a note with your name, address, Phone and Fax number, and any details you might want to provide about the types of promotions you've done, or want to do in the future. If you've got photos, that'd be cool too. I want to send out a big package as the first mailing, and I'll photo-copy as much stuff as you'd like. Send flyers, that you think are cool, or whatever. The more info we have about what one another do, the better we can plan. But even if you've never really done anything before, and you just want to try something new, here's a place to start. No fees to join, and really, nothing to do, if you don't want to. You'll be solicited to work on projects, by creators, publishers, or other retailers (Creator Tours seems like the most obvious idea, a network for ashcans might be another) but you need not accept any particular task (sorta like Mission: Impossible). More importantly, if you know something that would also want to be a part of this, pass the information along to them! Sad but true, there's still a bunch of people who aren't plugged into Comics Retailer, or any of my other avenues of dissemination. This is about building bridges, and the more people involved, the better! We need to transcend the "business as usual" attitude that pervades our business, where even "competitors" need to work together.
This is not about getting things for free, or even at better prices, necessarily, it's a network, not for trading, but for retailing, and creative, guerilla retailing, at that. We have the power to transform the industry, and the more we work together, the more we'll be able to accomplish. Please join me.
It's our (inclusive) industry, after all.