Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Whose Job is it, Anyway?

I recently came across a post on publisher SLG's web site saying that the Warlord of Io graphic novel would not be distributed by the major comic book distributor, Diamond. Within that article is a link to a post on The Comics Reporter that seems to blame the Direct Market (comic book retail) for this, and the potential decline in the industry itself.

In 2009 Diamond Distribution changed it's thresholds for products, making $2500 wholesale their cut off. In other words, if an item's initial Previews orders are less than $2500 Diamond will cancel the item and not distribute it.

If you have ever seen the Previews catalog you know that there are LITERALLY thousands of items solicited for sale each month. You should also understand that Diamond, while having a monopoly on the Direct Market distribution channel and often pulling some crazy stunts, is a BUSINESS. A for-profit company with overhead like warehouses and employees. Like any business they want to turn a profit and minimize expenses. It is not a government agency spending other people's money no matter the cost, nor is it a dude in his basement trying to spread the word about comics by giving them out to anyone he can. I know sometimes people have a hard time understanding the concept of BUSINESS when it's close to home, they make it emotional, but it isn't. If Diamond determined that it is not cost-effective to distribute an item that hasn't brought in $2500 +, it only makes sense that they would cancel the item. Sure, if you are a fan of that item or the creator of that item you might be bummed out, but it's nothing personal.

You know what else is a business? Each Direct Market comic book store. Sure, some of us barely make a profit, but that IS our goal. We want items in our store THAT WILL SELL We don't just buy things because it's good for the comic book industry or to have cool stuff sitting on racks collecting dust. We buy with the intent of selling that item and making a profit. Part of having that comic book store is bringing in customers. Each retailer does what he or she can to market their store, to bring customers in. We might buy ads, we might hand out free comics or coupons, we might do presentations at schools or libraries, we make it a part of our business to get people into our places of business. Then once those people are in the store we try to sell them something we have in stock. Again, we buy items that we believe WE CAN SELL. If customers come in and pre-order an item, or ask about something, or if we've heard good buzz or seen a great preview of an upcoming work, we order it, believing that once it arrives we have the ability to sell it.

You will notice that I do not assign the task of promoting a comic or graphic novel to either Diamond or the retail store owner. Diamond is in business to move products from one point to another. A retail store owner's job is to get people into the store and sell them something once they've arrived. Both of these businesses promote the Direct Market in the process of doing their jobs because they are an important piece in the process of getting comics into the hands of readers.

So whose job is it to promote works like Warlord of Io? It is the job of whomever stands to profit by its sale or experience a loss if it isn't sold. Diamond has plenty of items to sell, and if they need to see $2500 wholesale before they profit, then they obviously do not experience a loss from not distributing items that fall below that. The retailer, if they have the item IN the store, profits from selling the item and looses if it isn't sold. However, a smart retailer does his or her best to avoid buying something that doesn't have the ability to sell due to lack of interest.

Get where I'm going with this? It is the job of the publisher and the creator to promote their comics and graphic novels. Make me want to order them for my store. Get consumers asking for that item or issue. Just like Craig and I, and all other comic book retailers have to work to promote our stores or see them die, creators and publishers need to get out there and promote their works or expect that the item won't survive in the mass market. If the publishers and creators aren't out there creating interest in their work, or if they are but it isn't working, then they should not expect Diamond or the Direct Market to experience financial losses just so their item can see the fluorescent lights of comic book stores. On occasion a creator or creator's representative will contact us at the store, giving us information on a work they have in the Previews catalog. We look at it, and if it looks like something good, that we believe we can sell, we will order it. But that happens very rarely. Sometimes a work has a fan buzz, for example Atomic Robo and Umbrella Academy had a good deal of fan buzz - people came in asking for those works before they even were in Previews. Retailers knew there would be demand, so we ordered those items. But again, this happens on rare occasion.

In a sea of new items, it only makes sense to do what you can as a creator and publisher to get your items to rise to the top, and if you do not, then EXPECT to fail. To blame Diamond and/or the Direct Market because no one wanted to buy your comic book is not only irresponsible, it is RIDICULOUS. I know many in today's society prefer to blame everyone else for their own failures; it's easier than doing the work. But it doesn't fix or accomplish anything. As a business owner and as a human being I resent being blamed for the failure of others to do their jobs. Sure, occasionally a good thing meets with disaster - there have been some comics I thought were great (The Miscellaneous Adventures of Stykman for one) and whose creators were out working the front line to promote their works, but still were unable to meet Diamond's distribution cutoff. But by and large the failure of a work to meet the cutoff lies directly in the lap of the publisher and creator, no one else.

If there was an opportunity to profit from the distribution of smaller works to the retail market, a company would be doing so. However those that have tried in the past have met with failure. If a store really believes in a creator the owner will bring in that person for a signing and/or do an in-store promotion to build up interest in that person or work. It isn't like there isn't opportunity for these smaller publishers or creators. The opportunity IS out there. Yes, this current economy makes it harder for everyone, but there is still potential if you are willing to put in some effort. And sadly, in this life there is no guarantee that you will succeed. Today, for good creators who have works that have fans, but not quite enough to make the cut, there are GREAT opportunities on-line to get works to the fans. Maybe not through a retail outlet, but that isn't the only way to succeed today.

I enjoy comics, as do most comic book retailers. Even Steve Geppi, the owner of Diamond, likes comics. We WANT the direct market to grow and thrive. Because we love it, AND because we can profit from it. We are not choosing not to distribute or stock an item because we want to limit the market, we make these tough choices because even though we love comics, we fail if we don't also pay attention to the bottom line. We do our part to grow and promote comics each and every day. The Direct Market doesn't fail because some works are unable to gather enough interest to get them through Diamond to retailers - it fails when the essential pieces of the Direct Market close down due to bad business decisions that lead to financial ruin. Every time a comic book store closes comic book consumers are lost, but every time one opens new ones are found.


Anonymous said...

Personally, I don't believe that most folks think Diamond are responsible per se for failure to sell their books.

I think they lament the current scheme by which comic books are sold and fear the contraction of the comic book market.

Does the existence of the Direct Market, in the way that it currently functions, serve to slowly but surely pare down the total comic reading base and prevent a new readership from forming?


Does the failure of Diamond to carry a title, given how books are currently distributed to comic book shops, seek to minimize the chances of success for a particular independent title -- even with proper publicity?


Despite the above, does Diamond have a right to make money?


I think many comic fans and creators actually understand the current problem for what it really is: the industry is contracting.

And, if things do not change, the industry -- in the form and format in which it currently exists -- will die.

And, like all contracting industries, short-term profit-making (or even break-even-making) decisions -- like raising the dollar cut-off -- allow the industry to survive a bit longer... but also, simultaneously, serve to hasten its end.

I.E., We are an island society. If we do not cut down trees to make boats to fish, we will go hungry and die. However, if we cut down the last remaining trees in order to make boats to go fishing today, we guarantee we will starve to death once the current boats break. Barring a change of situation, that is.

And let's all hope for it.

Anonymous said...

"So whose job is it to promote works like Warlord of Io?"

It is just as much YOUR job as a retailer as it is the publisher's, provided you take the responsibility to carry it in your store.

Which you probably AREN'T taking responsibility. Not because you didn't hear about it, but because frankly like 99% of all the retail community in the comics industry, you're lazy and only care to promote what you said yourself: "what you KNOW will sell".

YOUR job is to be the ambassador to the medium of comics on the whole- INCLUDING the publisher who DOESN'T HAVE tens of thousands to blow on advertising- and not just to your fanboy clubhouse members, but to the general public at large, who honestly couldn't give a shit less about Marvel or DC product by and large, so why the hell are you not promoting products that might actually draw in, y'know, NORMAL people?

Tell me, what do you do when you have a customer who's complaining about what 'sucks' about X-Books, or Batman, or 52 WAYS TO HAVE AN IDENTITY CRISIS WHILE COUNTING DOWN TO THE SECRET INVASION OF THE HOUSE OF M IN THIS INFINITE CIVIL WAR, or whatever "hot ticket" item it is this week, but is still buying it out of rote habit?

Are you taking their money with a smile, laughing at them after they leave or possibly even citing them as the problem, seeing as they continue to buy books they dislike? "The customer is always right." Yeah, you are. I'm sure of it.

You're sure as hell not doing what a responsible retailer would do- tell the customer, "No, you're obviously not happy with this product. Let's put this back and find you something else that you will be happy you purchased."

All you care about is getting their money, not whether they're happy with what they buy. And eventually, that attitude leads to the customer becoming so jaded and disenchanted not with just the comics they read, but with comics on the whole, and they quit reading and walk out of your store never to return.

And that is YOUR FAULT.

I'll lay odds I can walk into your shop with a list of thirty to forty titles that I read, and you won't carry a single one of them, because you're too damned busy wasting your budget on corporate crap because it's easier for you to just throw that on the shelves, sit back and rake in money, than it is to actually function as a proper retailer and be a salesperson for the medium of comics as a whole.

The fact of the matter is this: What sells in your shop is what YOU CHOOSE to sell in your shop. If you're the lazy hypocrite who doesn't want to sell alternative product because you know full well that in doing so, you're going to kill your mainstream sales, that's your choice. But don't point fingers at the publisher you're not supporting, then. Because let's face it, if I drop UNCANNY X-MEN for CAPTAIN BRAINDEAD & THE SILLY SUPERS, chances are I'm also going to drop *all* the Marvel X-Books, which means either you have to bust your ass to promote other titles to me to replace the lost sales, or you lose out in overall sales.

And that's just too much effort for you and the majority of comics retailers to be bothered with, now isn't it?

The REAL truth hurts, doesn't it?

Lisa said...

For my response to these comments, please see my second post on the subject.