Tilting at Windmills #48
By Brian Hibbs
(Originally Ran in Comics Retailer #49)
Boy Editor JJ Miller made the astute observation that, excluding San Diego, we've lost all other retailer trade shows as the debris from The Upheaval continues to settle. Distributor-driven trade shows are apparently a thing of the past, and the few regional conventions that held such things have seemingly abandoned them.
What's ironic about this is that this is the very time most retailers need more information about running a more professional business, and juggling more paperwork! Business is seldom easy, and The Upheaval has only made it more difficult for comic book retailers to survive, let alone prosper.
My largest concern is the lack of communication between the various levels of the industry. My feeling over the last few months is that while some publishers have gotten more focused and professional in presenting their marketing messages, the underlying plans are not created in consultation with the retailers -- the ones who, at the end of the day, are taking the greatest risk and responsibility with the product.
Now, some may accuse me of hubris in this matter, but I firmly believe that retailers are better able to determine what is workable and salable in a publishing and marketing plan than nearly any publisher employee. That's not to say that there are not many dedicated, and wildly intelligent, people working at the publisher level -- there most certainly are -- but they don't look the customer in the eye when they come up to the counter with their purchase.
This, I think, is the key -- the publisher, the distributor, they're "insulated" from the actual purchase of the product. Unlike other kinds of retailing, comics have always been fan oriented. We've only got a limited number of consumers purchasing our product, with little mass market penetration. Customers are leaving the field, and it takes months for that information to get back to the publisher level. I was having a conversation with a creator who used to work for one of the former Big 5. He told me that, eighteen months ago, as the decline started, the publisher kept insisting that the sales figures had dropped as far as they could. Then, a month later, when the new, lower figures would come in, the same statement would be made. This continued as long as this creator kept working for the company, and I presume it is still occurring today. The very nature of the direct market encourages thinking focused on the wrong elements on the publishing level.
The nice thing about retailer input, is that it is "free". I've yet to meet a single retailer who didn't have hard-won opinions on what and why are problems are. They're happy to share and process this information, because they're the first ones at risk of going out of business from bad publisher decisions. An enormously large pool of information is there, waiting to be tapped by the intelligent publisher or distributor.
What we need to avoid is the "dog and pony show" mentality that has colored previous industry functions. Most "trade shows" appeared to be designed to sell more material to us, rather than working with us to sell more product. This may sound like an exercise in semantics to you, but I learned early in my short life that there is two kinds of power relationships -- power-over, and power-with. Power-over can be as blatant as "do what we tell you, and no one will get hurt", or as subtle as "do what we tell you, because we know better" Power-with, on the other hand takes the form of "We think this is what you should do, but we're happy to be proven wrong, and to find a better way." Most relationships between the points on the Direct Market triangle are one form or another of power-over. By example: Diamond has announced they're setting a "comic shop located service" (a worthwhile goal, by the way) -- this service was set up by Diamond, with input from the largest publishers. Retailers are being asked to fund this program, but, as near as I can tell, no retailer has any input into how this program will be run, or how resources will be allocated. While, as I said, I think it's a noble goal to set up this program, I'm not sure that I'm willing to give the distributor $x a month for a program that I (or any other retailer) has oversight or decision making input in. Diamond may well believe that they are working for the best interests of all participants -- and I have no doubt that they'll try -- but the "power" in this transaction flows from them, rather than being mutual and shared. Diamond has had, for the last two years, a "retailer advisory board" -- I know this because I "sat" on it this whole time -- but not once in that time did they ask us for any input in such a program, whether it being in starting it up, or organizing and running it. I mean, here you have a group of fifty retailers who have volunteered time from their busy scheduled to do work for free, and they never once utilized this resource in any substantive manner.
The marketplace is dying. Now, more than ever, we need to fundamentally alter and transform the relationships of communication in this business. Were I a publisher, I'd have at least one employee whose job is to be on the road organizing small pockets of retailer communication. Not the "Fall Fling" model, where the very act of bringing together fifty or more retailers causes the whole act to degenerate into a free-for-all bitch-fest -- no, I mean targeted "focus groups" where half-a-dozen retailers are put together to discuss specific, practical agendas. Promotions, organization, marketing plans -- these things simply can not be discussed in "open sessions".
Publishers will say, if asked, that they'll happily attend such things, but only if we take the initiative, and set them up. Witness the DLG meeting in January. While it is very useful for retailers to be able to determine an agenda that suits their needs, I also feel that the publishers need to bring to us where and why they're going. A small example: I thought almost all in-store promotional elements of Marvel vs DC were garish, badly designed, and inappropriate. A retailer-driven agenda is not going to touch the specifics of upcoming in-store promotion, if only because we have no idea what these things are going to be. I can not plan title-specific promotions more than 3 months in advance, if only because I don't know what titles are coming when, and what tools I'll be provided with to promote those titles. I can only speak for myself, but I want to start planning for the fall today. Not set-in-stone plans that aren't flexible, but, at least, a solid outline of what my options are.
Retailers don't organize, don't utilize the power that we have, because we've been trained to think we have none -- few retailers will spontaneously organize, because we believe it will do little good. CBRI lasted a few years, then fizzled under it's own weight. The DLG announced ambitious plans, then apparently had no follow-through for two years. PACER seems to accomplish nothing. We're talking about a long history of retailer's groups that can't even publish the simplest position paper! I'd love to be proven wrong, but it appears to this observer than comic book retailers are like the (soon to be?) proverbial 1000 cats. Heck, I tried to start my own organization, but it quickly became apparent that if I didn't do everything, then nothing would happen. That's not to fault anyone -- hell, we're all working enormously hard just trying to keep our stores running -- but if publishers and distributors want to stop the free-fall, want to halt the distrust, want to restore our faith, then they need to come to us. I used to joke after the Defiant fiasco that Jim Shooter would have to visit every comic shop in America personally, and hand us a $100 bill, in order for us to trust him again. But it's not just Jim any more. It's virtually all of you.
I don't have the resources, or the time, to set up a focus group locally. It's not a cop-out, it's the truth. I can't do it, nor can most retailers. But DC can. Marvel can. Image can. Dark Horse can. Diamond can. Capital City probably can. Let's make something happen, folks. Because you've lost our faith.
Brian Hibbs, owner of Comix Experience can be reached at 305 Divisadero st., San Francisco, CA, 94117. You can also fax him at (415) 863-9299, or e-mail him at 70314.3013@Compuserve.com