Tilting at Windmills #37
By Brian Hibbs
(Originally Ran in Comics Retailer #38)
There are days it just doesn't pay to be a columnist.
Take today for example. I asked John Miller to hold my deadline to the last possible moment this month, because I would be (or, probably, more accurately, I am) at DC's 4th annual Retailer Representative Program's meeting in Nashville. I was kinda hoping, since they paid to get some 60 or so of the most influential retailers in one room, that they'd give us some sort of announcement as to what the status of distribution might be.
The best laid plans of mice and men.
So, I'm sitting in my hotel room, waiting for check-out time (2 and a half hours from now. D'oh!), trying to bang out these words so John won't have to rip out his hair at the prospect of a blank page. But I don't have a lot to say.
No, that's not precisely accurate. I simply don't have any news. As I said, the best laid plans....
But I do still have opinions. Hell, the day I don't have opinions is the day I throw in the towel. And I'm not prepared to do that quite yet.
Now, it's entirely possible that when you see this column 3 weeks from now, that DC has made their final announcement of their distribution plans, and that, as a result, other publishers have made their plans (I don't think it's any state secret that Dark Horse, and Image, at least, are essentially waiting to hear what DC does, before they make their final decision), but as of the minute I'm writing this, such things are still up in the air.
However, it's not impossible to speculate on their motives, and their likely moves. I think it's safe to say, based as much on what they didn't say, as to what they did, that the likely plan right now is for DC to arrange an exclusive distribution deal, probably with Diamond.
As near as I can gather, the primary reason for this action will be to "fix" some of the problems that we're facing: namely, in the short term, to keep retailer's discount structures more or less intact, and over the longer haul, to overhaul the reorder system so that we can get more reasonable fill rates, reducing, in essence, our exposure to, and risk in, ordering the volume of merchandise we do, sight unseen.
While these are, of course, noble goals, I strongly question the ultimate value of an unilateral system of "my way, or the highway". Naturally, when one distributor becomes the sole choice in getting a given publisher's wares, we lose most factors of competition – particularly the ones that matter the most: advocacy, and free movement. We've enjoyed a circumstance over the better part of the last decade where if one distributor didn't give us the service we wanted or needed, we could use their competition as a cudgel to get better service. Either you give us what we want, or we walk. Exclusivity will punch a gaping hole a mile wide, and six miles deep, in our individual abilities to have and receive advocacy. And, as such, I think it's a fairly horrible model to base our businesses upon. Capitalism, and a free market, depend upon strong and healthy competition, to avoid devolving into WeSaySo.
So, if we're to lose our Free Market on a distribution level, what does that leave us with? Well, as long as you're willing to work for it, we're unlikely, in the short term, to lose the free market of publishers and product.
If DC does as they claim, and preserves the discounting structure (or perhaps, more accurately, adjusts the discount structure so that our current levels stay intact, no matter how many sources we may end up using), then they just bought us enough time to get our own shit together. They are not the Great White Hope by any means whatsoever, but they're buying us the breathing room we need right now.
Oh, let's not be too optimistic: sometime in the next 12 months, our overall discounts will almost certainly drop by 5%, or perhaps more. But, instead of that happening in July, when Marvel pulls out (coitus interuptus, doncha' know?), it might now happen in December or later (just watch, though: DC won't be able to do the deal the way they want, we keep the old system, in the new order, and all our discounts plummet. Retailers take to the streets, pitchforks and torches in tow, demanding my blood for being wrong -- another damn reason I sometimes hate writing these things, even with my shortened deadlines. A fortune teller I'm not!) What this means is that we've got us a grace period, in which to change, transform, and survive.
Who would've thought that Paul Levitz and Dave Sim would ever think alike about our marketplace (don't worry, folks, this may seem like a digression, but actually, it's well on the point)? I mean, both men are smart, and passionate about our medium, but their background, focus, and directions within the industry could not be more diametrically opposed. But both have said recently something that could be paraphrased thusly: "As a retailer you make a lot of choices in what and how you stock your store. But, historically (at least, as much as the recent market could be said to have a "history"), few retailers have been clearly focused on what kind of store they want to run. The day of the "full-service comic shop" is gone, if it ever really was here, and what you choose not to stock is nearly as important as what you do. There are products on the marketplace, even ones from, and this is the important bit, my company, that not all retailers should try to stock. Because if you do try to carry it all, that increases the chances, that you're going to marginalize your cash flow, and rate of return, until you go out of business." Although, being a comics retailer, I can see that it's not quite as easy as they seem to believe, to pinpoint, with brilliant intensity, the kind of store you want to be, I think they're right that, as an industry, we've barely begun to take the first baby steps towards deciding what exactly it is we want to be when we grow up.
You don't have to carry a full line of Marvels, unless you're a Marvel Store. You don't have to carry a full line of DCs, unless you're a DC store. Hell, you don't have to a full line of Vertigos, unless you're a Vertigo store. And, you know what? Even if you do decide to align yourself with one company or another, even then, you don't have to support the entire line! I don't think I'm alone in believing that Blackwulf, or Gunfire, or Kid Eternity, to pick three recent examples from each faction named above, have "Dog" written all over them, but still, most of us signed off on each of these, to some extent, because we see ourselves as "Marvel stores" or "DC stores", or "Vertigo stores", but we're not! (However much we may choose to fervently believe that) Moreover, we shouldn't be! What we should be is on the cover of this magazine: Comics Retailers. The questions you need to ask yourself right now is "what are my strengths?", and "What kind of a store do I want to be?" But you should never (or at least nearly never) align yourself around publishers. Genres, yes. Creators, yes. Characters, even, yes. But not publishers. Publishers aren't (and shouldn't ever be) what you sell. You sell comics. And if there is one lesson the last 5 years have hopefully taught us, is that not all Marvel comics are good, and not all DC comics are bad, as well as the reverse of that. And that's a lesson we need to reaknowledge every month when we fill out those order forms.
So that's where we have our freedom of movement, and the power we can wield -- not in what the mechanism of delivering product is (which should be merely a logistical problem), but what material we carry and stock, and why. We've got a little breathing room to make these choices, and I'm sure the next year will find more than a few of us making the wrong choices, but I hope the wheels have at least started gearing up in your head to how you're going to face the coming revolution. And always remember, it doesn't have to be a "Marvelution", or a "DCution", but the revolution is on it's way, whether you want it to or not.
Marvel may have invaded Poland, but DC holds the Atom bomb. And like any good "weapon of peace", that bomb forces us to re-evaluate we view the world, and our place in it. The power to choose for you has always been in your hands. It's time to use it.