TILTING AT WINDMILLS #24
By Brian Hibbs
One of the things that frustrates the most about this industry is seemingly how little the publishers understand their audience, and how seldom they put themselves in the consumer’s position.
Let's take a couple of examples: As we all know, Malibu comics debuted the Ultraverse (as you read this) 11 months ago – in this span of time they've solicited for 122 comics with a total cover price of $239.50. Also, 10 of these have come bagged, 27 involved a coupon promotion, 14 have cross-title crossovers, and 25 have had content geared to a line-wide promotion. Eliminating issues that appear on both lists, we're still left with a massive 58 comics that are based solely on the individual contents – that's nearly 48% of their output!
Now, on one hand, you have to hand it to Malibu for going full-tilt, with strong promotions and heavy advertising – even outreach to the "civilian" market via advertising on cable. These are valid strategies, and mark Malibu as a "professional" publisher: strong unified strategies working towards a single goal. This should be lauded.
But has it worked? Some stores have reported major successes with the Ultraverse, but other stores, like mine, are watching it stall or drop. I feel that any title that's selling less than 5 copies is a dog. Why? Because of the amount of money that each foot of floorspace costs us, and the amount that processing time (cycle sheets, ordering-in, unpacking, racking, and handling, etc.) costs. Taking my costs into account, I break-even on floor-space at roughly $12 per rack space per month. Figuring that the "average" comic costs well over $2, that gives me a thumb-nail (but, of course, it's not necessarily that of any individual book) of 5 copies. 6 of the 13 regular monthly UV books sell less than 5 copies each for me.
Now, I'll freely admit, that I'm hardly "gung-ho" about yet another super-hero "universe", and I've never "pushed" the Ultraverse in general (though I have for the individual books that I think are exemplary), but I have given them good display, and when asked for a mainstream action recommendation, have steered customers towards them. But, even given my "passive" involvement, one would think (one would hope!) that the heavy promotion would be bringing people in.
So, I think the problem lies in not how much (or the quality) of the promotion, but rather the quantity of material. I have many customers who are super-hero fans. They basically like cross-line continuity and interaction, but few can afford 13 monthly titles. I have many customers who adore Barry Windsor-Smith. But few of them were willing to shell out $27.50 for the 33 pages of serial that launches his monthly title. The feeling I get from watching my customers in action is that they might be interested in some of the individual titles, but they're afraid they're going to get sucked in to the rest of the Universe, and they can't afford that, so it's easier for them to skip it all than to try one or two books.
Is that crazy behavior? Well, yeah, possibly, but I know most of my customers, and the majority of them are having a hard enough time paying the bills, and they can't afford to buy into another universe.
And that's what Malibu has been selling: the universe. All of the ads, all of the promo has been selling the Ultraverse, not the individual titles. What the consumer feels he being asked to buy into, right or wrong, is the line-identity, not the individual components. And in the comics market of 3 years ago, that would've worked just fine – but in this glut, with consumer confidence at an all time low, it's counter-productive.
One more quick Malibu example before I move on would be the Bravura "Are you Fan Enough?" promotion. It should be called "Are you Confused Enough?" - a promotion that can't be explained in two sentences isn't any good. Its another example of throwing more at the consumer than either a) they want to handle and/or b) they are capable of handling.
Moving down the list I look at Marvel's Spider-Man Animation Promotion in the April Books. So, great, Spider-Man is a big property for Marvel, and a new cartoon is going to start, and it's a wonderful cross-promotional opportunity to create new consumers, etc. So what does Marvel do? They double the price on the entire line (including the reprint books!) for a month to include a 16 page advertisement, and a cel. Now this is all well and fine – a reasonable promotion that might even be cool, if the cels are done right. But it's more likely to alienate core-readers than it is to bring in new readers who'll stay for life.
Look at the scheduled shipping for the first week of April: You have an Amazing Spider-Man "ashcan" (advertisement) for 75 cents; 2 editions of Spider-Man #46 for $2.95 & $1.95; 2 editions of Spider-Man Classics #15 for $2.95 & $1.25; 2 editions of Web of Spider-Man #113 for $2.95 and $1.50; the Web of Spider-Man annual #10 for $2.95; and Spider-Man 2099 #20 for $1.50. One of each would cost $18.75. Without the variants it's still $14.05 (and before I get a hew and cry from those of you checking my math, I'm using the "enhanced" version as the "keeper" because by looking at the charts, the majority of retailers either don't offer the "unenhanced" version, or carry an incredibly small number of them that most consumers have to choose the higher priced version). Now maybe it's just me, but I think that's far too much money to ask for from a consumer. Let's face it, most people who buy Spider-Man are "Spider-Man Zombies" - they buy everything Spider-Man related that they can. But they're not zombies because they only like Spider-Man; oh no, it's because they can no longer afford to keep up on Spider-Man and the X-Men and the Avengers, etc. And many of these people are buying from nostalgia: Spider-Man (or whatever) is their last main-stream habit...otherwise they only buy the books they enjoy consistently. Junkies are a large part of all entertainment industries - people who need their fix of product X. But the trick is to balance the needs of the stockholders against the ability of the junkie (and I'm sure there are those of you who're going to cringe at the metaphor, but, damnit! we're selling habitual entertainment...) to sustain that need. The last thing you want to do is give them a reason to question their purchases – that is the point where they start to go from junkie to "clean & sober".
Once you start asking them to give you $14 in one week you're opening a can of worms. That's the point where it's easier to quit than continue.
In a different way, DC is giving their junkies an "out". Of course we're all aware than Batman has preformed less consistently than they have since Bruce Wayne no longer wears the mantle, but I'll focus on Green Lantern for today. Unlike the other "big shake-ups" that DC has brought, the change in Green Lantern has not grown naturally out of the character, but was clearly imposed from above. The end result has to been to horribly alienate many long-term Green Lantern fans. Now, maybe these were a small number, and DC judged it a reasonable risk to court a larger audience with drastic changes, but I believe it is always a dangerous tack to blow-off your base in search of an audience that isn't necessarily there. The end result is to create open animosity from the long-time reader, and not just towards Green Lantern, but also to all DC universe books. One of my best customers (spending well over $80 a week) informed me that he would no longer automatically buy every DC comic any more...he was going to be a lot more selective because of the events in Green Lantern. When you lose the hardest of the hard-core there's something terrible wrong.
In all three of these cases we can see publishers misunderstanding the consumers interest in, or ability to follow an expansion or radical change. Now, of course, the publishers will point to sell-in figures and go, "Look, the numbers are up (or at least not down as far is the free-fall of today's market), so we must be doing the right thing", but I say again, sell-in is meaningless – all it reflects is hope and conjecture on the part of the retailers. And while that stands for something, it's hardly the proper benchmark to base a line-expansion.
Understand your market. Understand your customers. Understand how retailer orders skew the bigger, long-term picture.
Before it's too late.
I have one last order of business to cover before I lay this to rest this month, and it's a topic that by now you're probably thoroughly sick of hearing about: distributor penalty fees to publishers.
As you all know, Capital City distributors announced that, effective immediately publishers who cancel titles will have to pay $500, or $750 if they have to resolicit. Now, you tell me: is this right?
Of course it's not!
Wiser and more eloquent mouths than mine have gone into detail about how this system is inherently unfair to small publishers because their costs and margins are substantially worse than those of a large publisher (the old "Economy of scale"). I agree wholeheartedly with these positions.
But (you knew that was coming, right?) I also don't disagree with the idea behind this policy. Let's call a spade a spade: there are far too many marginal companies producing drek in a market that can't afford it. Further, there are far too many creators who are not yet of professional quality to go the self-publisher route.
It was not very long ago when I felt constrained to carry at least one copy of every comic solicited. I figured it was the least that I could do to support the future of the marketplace, but giving support to anyone who even tried.
Well, those days are over. There's far too much product on the market, and there's far too much consumer confusion to play the "support the amateur" game.
Quite frankly, it's way too easy to publish your own comic book. $5000 (or less) and you're a publisher. It cost me 4 times that to open my store 5 years ago! (and today, I know I couldn't've done it for at least 50% more...) $5000 is not an insignificant amount of money, but it is still a paltry amount to get national distribution with! So while I do actively encourage new and young creators to attack the industry with all the vigor they can muster, and while I do wholeheartedly embrace the idea that creators should have full control of their creation, I still think it's far too easy for any hack with a pen, an idea (it doesn't have to be a good one!), and an indulgent parent, to put out a comic.
On the other hand, we certainly don't want a system that would destroy a full-blown creative vision like Bone, or cripple a soon-to-be vision like Cerebus was when it started.
Of course it does cost money to process and handle orders on a book that doesn't ship (or ships late). On cycling, ordering, and handling subscriptions for my Saver customers it costs me roughly a minimum of 50 cents to simply carry a book. When that book doesn't ship, or has to handled again (resolicited) my costs, of course, jump. Naturally, that 50 cents base is scaled to the volume I'm handling, so that your average issue of X-Men costs more for me to process than an issue of Obscure Comics #1.
And I imagine it's the same for the distributors.
So while I think it is fair for a publisher to pay a fee for screwing with the market, and the retailers, I hardly think a flat fee is equitable.
What would be fair is a per-book fee. Say, a 5 cents a book. What that would mean is that the little guy who is trying to make a serious go of it, and only musters orders for 500 copies is only dunned for $25, while the big guy who constantly abuse the system, and gets orders for 750,000 copies is liable for $37,500. "Let the punishment fit the crime"
(and to add one last thing: if it does indeed cost Capital a minimum of $500 to handle orders for a book, then I want to close my shop, and handle order processing for them - I could be making $50k+ a year for doing grunt work! [$500 per-item with 1200 items a month, assuming 50 employees doing nothing but order processing for 22 warehouses gives you $72,000 a year!])
I urge everyone reading this column to make your dissatisfaction with Capital's policy known.
One final thing before I go: I just heard that Jack Kirby died. At the point you read this the news is old. I have no doubt that you've read many passionate and eloquent eulogies for one of the few men that every cliché is true (he was an inspiration for thousands, he was one of the most prolific & influential artists of all time, etc.) – and I can't add to that. What I can do is ask you all to bow your heads right now in a moment of silence for a man whom we all owe our livelihoods to. I truly believe if it wasn't for the passion and the life that The King brought to comics there would never have been a need for comic book shops.
A moment of Silence, please...