Tilting at Windmills #279: The Plague Diaries – How comics retailing moves forward

This article originally appeared on this site

By Brian Hibbs

This was supposed to be the annual BookScan column, but then COVID-19 swept the world.

There are millions of people with more serious worries than mine – there are people who are at serious risk of dying, there are hospital workers who are putting themselves in genuine harm’s way to try to help protect the population – so the worries of a comic book store owner are genuinely unimportant in a time like this. And yet, I have to worry about my staff, and my family, and how this impacts all of them. Please don’t take a single word of what I write as diminishing the very serious life-threatening concerns that others have; but I have to share my truths as best I know how.

Comix Experience has six employees, most of whom are dependent on their jobs to pay their own rents and sustenance. I myself am the sole provider for my wife and son, and selling comics is all I’ve ever done since I was twenty-one years old; at 52 years old, I wouldn’t judge myself to be exactly an attractive hire in the post-plague world, if I had to close the stores.

Comix Experience is a cash-flow based business. We’re largely profitable, but it is pretty marginal – and without new money coming in, we’ll burn through our cash reserve in very short order. We are currently pledged to pay our amazing and awesome staff the full amount they would have received, but that’s not really sustainable when we’re closed to walk-in traffic.

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The San Francisco Bay Area was the first municipal area in the United States to shut down “non-essential” business. 3/16 was our final day of being “open”. And while calls for clarification seem to indicate that we can continue to do mail order and extremely limited “contactless” curbside delivery, the stone cold reality of things is that doing a transaction for a customer at the register takes seconds, while doing all of the steps and work of mail order or curbside takes minutes – sometimes as much as ten minutes, depending on the asks. Our systems, our inventory, our work flow, our knowledge, is all centered around and optimized for supporting walk-in customers.

In a best-case scenario, we’ve been working roughly four times as hard for about one-fourth of the income. This is not sustainable; either for our own health, or our economic picture.

We’re not alone in this; I’m no one special here, but being in the Bay Area means we’re a lot further on the lack-of-sales curve than most of my peers, many of which are just now starting to get shut-down notices from their states. And, it is my belief that NO order will be lifted until all fifty states have done a full three week shut down – while San Francisco’s current order says “through May 3rd”, California’s is “indefinite”, and my current expectation is we’ll still be likely to be locked down into June.

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Tony S. Daniel’s cover to Batman #94, once scheduled to be released on May 4

I also want to note that while mail order, etc. was strong for a week or so (though not enough to actually pay the bills), it reduced precipitously in the second week, and now that we know that the comics printer shut down and that Diamond is no longer distributing new product, I’m positive it’s going to drop precipitously once again.

The “CARES act” that Congress passed holds some hope…. IF it does the things it says, and IF the Small Business Association can keep up with the demand that will be unleashed (there are reasons to doubt both of those premises, I think), but even the rosiest scenarios in there isn’t enough to keep the stores going for more than a short time.

Both of my landlords have told me we can “defer” the rent (but it will still be due eventually). Paying commercial rents on an unusable retail space is not a tenable situation for more than a month or so.

So that’s my State of Play right now.

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As noted above, the comics printer Transcontinental shut down on March 25th for “three weeks”, and that means that Diamond shut down shipping new items directly thereafter.

But let’s talk about some purely mechanical truths: Once you shut down a big and complex machine, it is inherently slow to start back up again. Orders have to be taken (virtually no order that was placed before the shutdowns could be considered valid), product has to be printed, packaged and shipped out to distribution, where it needs to be broken down and repackaged, and then sent out to thousands of stores. Even assuming the freight networks are all working at pre-COVID levels (which sounds like an open question to me), if everything came together perfectly and precisely together correctly, to absolute best case scenarios, it seems pretty obvious to me that the earliest we could assume that new comics could ship again would be May 6th, six weeks later. This also sounds like an overly optimistic time frame to me, and that we’re more likely to be well into June before new comics arrive inside of stores.

This also sounds like a complete pipe dream to me, because there are still whole states in the US whose Governors are still stubbornly resisting closing down, which will do nothing but prolong this problem for everyone.

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Now, virtually every publisher has promised to not ship new comics, in print or digitally, until this crisis is over (Image should get an enormous amount of credit for being first out of the gate here, with Boom! very close on their heels), but there have been two major exceptions: Marvel and DC.

Now we reach the portion of my column that I have had to rewrite at least three times over the course of a week, because things keep changing.

Originally, DC’s official press release statement talked in oblique corporate double-speak. However, in multiple retailer forums on Facebook (including at least one that isn’t “private” as any rational person might understand it), separate DC representatives had both used identical verbiage of “Here’s where we are on digital. All our data shows the digital consumer and the physical consumer are two different audiences. For now, we’re going to continue to release digital comics, but will revisit this if the pipeline for physical distribution continues to be challenged and disrupted.”

Obviously, it’s been an open secret for a long time now that there are factions at DC that pine to get rid of physical print periodicals, in fact I was told that one of the very first questions that was asked by AT&T when they had their first post-takeover meeting at DC, in the pre-plague past, was “Why are we still printing these?”. I even sort of get it a little bit – every other physical media other than prose books has moved wildly significant percentages of their income to digital and streaming, and that’s because in those media the actual difference-to-average-consumers in consumption experience is neutral to significantly better. But it’s my belief that comics are a significantly worse experience when they’re not on paper.

This also appears to be the audience’s belief: all indications from all fronts is that digital is a pretty minor portion of sales (under 15% for most comics), and that it hasn’t changed at all meaningfully in the last decade. In fact, I am reminded of DC publisher Jim Lee’s “dental floss” analogy from back in 2011.

Now, regardless of my personal beliefs about the value and readability of digital comics, it certainly appears that the audience agreed, at least as long as print and the physical object was still an option. But are they going to feel the same if we go six to eighteen weeks (or more) without print comics? Surely at least some will “crack” in the meantime and switch channels. How much “channel bleed” can undercapitalized retailers survive, especially after the gut punch of being forced to close? And how many people are going to continue with the “habit” of comics, if it gets interrupted for any real period of time? Long-term, what if the market loses even 5% of readers? That would be a significant body blow to many stores.

We already know of at least one store that isn’t planning on reopening on the other side of the crisis: Lee’s Comics in Mountain View, and I don’t see how publishers considering digital first wouldn’t increase the number of stores thinking the same. Lord, it’s making me think that maybe reopening won’t be viable, and I’m one of the rah-rah-iest cheerleaders for comics you could possibly find.

Choosing to continue with digital releases seems like the worst possible choice a publisher could make – the raw ill-will they would generate from their single largest market segment, for what seems very likely to be an insignificant gain in revenue sounds like a pure PR and marketing disaster to me.

And, In fact, that seems to be what happened to DC for the 4/1 on-sale books – first they announced (albeit it in a cowardly and under-the-table way) that they were going through with digital-first comics; then the next day, due to what we presume to be massive and sustained backlash, they pulled plans to release them.

The Mechanical Issues

But let’s get back to the mechanical issues for a second, by looking at a single comics series, BATMAN. Now, BATMAN is published fortnightly – issue #92 was scheduled for 4/1, #93 for 4/15 and #94 for 5/6. Let’s assume we’re all magically back in business by that last date (we probably won’t be), what happens then? Is DC going to ship three issues in a single week? Three issues that they’ve promised in print will be made fully returnable with them even paying return freight? Would anyone buy those? Would anyone have the money to do that, and how would it impact their purchases of any other comics in that same six weeks-at-once scenario? Can the market afford a “catch up” product dump? Can Diamond handle that kind of output all at once? Can DC handle the vast river of returned product they’d get under that circumstance?

Rather than using this production gap to get caught up on production schedules, to ensure that comics don’t ship late, to set things up for a properly spaced, structured and marketed future, DC would have been ensuring an enormous stress and strain on the market.

You know, historically, DC was always the sober and steady publisher, the one that put the retailer above almost any other consideration and whose broad shoulders protected us all. So that the heel turn of “we’re going to throw you to the wolves” was heartbreaking. It’s super-terrific that they backed off, but that still doesn’t change the fact that they did break our hearts, and it is going to be very very difficult to “forget” that as we move forward. The thing I know is that my peers and myself are fragile economically, but that we are deep and profound survivors because we do what we do from love, not profit motive as our primary consideration. But our support of any project or publisher is born from that love. Without that love, why would we put up with the shit we do?

We remember, you see. We remember everything. I still think about and talk about, say, ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN #500 and the folly of chasing hits that was taught to the market then, and that happened longer ago than most of my staff being born!

The thing is, if publishers kill the Direct Market, they really don’t have much left. There is no longer a viable or valid “newsstand” market, and all of the wishing for such a thing to magically spring back into being by armchair pundits who’ve never invested a dollar outside of their personal comics collection can’t change that – most modern periodical comics have a shelf life less than milk, they’re incredibly fragile and hard to handle, sought primarily by an audience that has significant interest and investment in material being “mint”, and priced so low compared to other magazines that they’re barely worth the costs of handling.

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In point of fact the reason there is a “Direct Market” is because the non-specialist couldn’t effectively sell comics any more. And that was when the output of DC and Marvel was in the range of a dozen books a week. There’s absolutely no way it could work with the kind of atomized output they have these days – there wasn’t a single not-first-issue that sold in February that sold 100,000 copies, nationwide. There simply isn’t enough money in it for non-DM stores to deal with the product. Barnes & Noble tried, and couldn’t do it; Gamestop tried, and couldn’t do it. The idea that anything other than the niche stores that have evolved to support periodical comics could do it is a pretty unrealistic pipe dream, sorry.

(Even more preposterous are the folks agitating for a “return to the newsstand” along with a wholesale price cut to prices they remember when they were children – the math simply doesn’t work, people!)

Nor would it really be possible for the overwhelming majority of DC and Marvel’s output to survive as “digital only” or “trade only” – the only reason those books are able to come out at the price points they do in the ways that they do is because the DM is amortizing the overwhelming majority of the costs of production.

Sadly, so much of the Direct Market is something like a battered spouse: we insist they’ll change, and we take our hits again and again, and then eventually one day you get beaten to death. That day came really really close last week.

A knife in the back is one thing, a knife in the face is so much worse.

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But you know what the worst part to me is? It’s the notion that DC and Marvel could actually take six weeks (or more) “off” to plan, and retool, and refigure their offerings and how and what and where and why they publish comics. They could eliminate late-shipping and mis-solicited comics. They could build marketing plans that actually capitalized on the local passions of local DM retailers, and to reach out and work with us to structure and grow our audiences in ways that make everybody stronger in the long run.

Like, let’s stay with DC for the second: and take their “Generation 5” plan – right now, as a person who might be expected to sell them someday, the pre-plague version of this line looked like a chaotic mess, with messages and marketing all confused and muddled, especially in the wake of Dan Didio’s firing. This moment of “Crisis On Earth Real” gives them a chance to fix all of that, and reschedule and reposition, and to build something that might actually last more than a single quarter.

Empyre_0_CombinedCoversI don’t think that our publishers actually understand just how much our orders are based on our faith to be able to sell to walk-in customers. Preorders are absolutely the metric and rule for a long standing series – I’m selling +2 rack copies on a typical Marvel comic overall, but when it gets to new launches that are actually a “success”, those are really entirely on the retailer’s hope and faith. Since we had to turn in FOC orders for weeks that I knew I was closed to walk-in customers, and turn in an entire order for the month of May where I have to assume I am also closed, we went straight to subs only. The changes and numbers were illuminating to me. My thought here rushes to EMPYRE, Marvel’s theoretical “tentpole” offering this year, with an entire line of mini-series and tie-ins built around it. We originally ordered thirty copies of the first issue, historically extremely low on the scale of “Marvel line-wide events” (back when they were rarer and the line was less-“wide”, it could never be less then one hundred copies sold), but when I dropped orders down to just consumer pre-orders… my orders dropped to just six copies!

I hadn’t actually consciously recognized that I was bearing eighty percent of the risk for that series until I did that revised FOC order.

I mean, wait, why the hell am I doing that if publishers don’t have my back right now, of all times in the history of comics?

As I write this, we just passed the second Wednesday where it wasn’t actually clear what Marvel was doing, on a Tuesday morning – Comixology had a full listing of comics that were scheduled to go on sale… and if I look this second at next week’s list, all of those comics are still listed from Marvel comics as well. Taking this issue “week by week” is absolutely infuriating when the vast majority of comic book stores is completely dependent on Marvel to pay their bills.

How hard is it to reassure your number one market? How difficult would it be to communicate these things through “official” channels instead of us retailers having to find out about these things from comic book “news” websites instead?

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The other thing that happened last week, just as the collective retailer base thought we had “won” on digital-first from Marvel and DC, was that “ComicsHUB” suddenly announced a Digital-first plan of their own.

Wow, did that not sit right with folks, and a day later, it was swiftly retracted.

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Now, I happen to be of the mind that nothing malicious was intended here (quite the opposite!), but “it’s coming from inside the house!” is potentially more worrying because a crisis like this requires that folks stick together. In a Facebook poll, in a private group, 222 votes from retailers were cast, with an overwhelming 177 of them (80%) against Digital First releases. Only eleven people (5%) were for it.

I don’t know if I have ever seen eighty percent of comic book retailers agree on anything, so that’s really quite an accomplishment.

I’m going to repeat it again because it seems clear to me that many commentators didn’t think through the mechanical “how does that work?” part of things, but the premise of the ComicsHUB plan was that we were “pre-selling” each week’s comics, and in the meantime, a consumer would get a digital copy. Logistically, it is hard to see how that could possibly work on the top end as I’ve already outlined above (“The Mechanical Issues”): Even if three issues of Batman are magically available in six weeks: Is DC going to ship three issues in a single week? Three issues that they’ve already promised in print will be made fully returnable with them even paying return freight? Would anyone buy those? Would anyone have the money to do that, and how would it impact their purchases of any other comics in that same six weeks-at-once scenario? Can the market afford a “catch up” product dump? Can Diamond handle that kind of output all at once? Can DC handle the vast river of returned product they’d get under that circumstance?

What happens if that “three issues behind of BATMAN” becomes six? Or eight?

When we come out the other side of this, the world is going to be different. Whole industries will have to change or die, we’ll still probably have massive unemployment for months, if not years, to come. It is wholly irrational to think that things are going to snap right back to how they were before, even if we thought that was desirable on its face.

And, at least in comics, I know that it wouldn’t be desirable. Things were skewed and broken and weird before the plague, why on earth would we want to go back to that place where publishers are overproducing mediocre and uncommercial comics and causing their own sales to drop as a direct result? I will only talk for myself here, but a whole lot of the things I used to tolerate about publishing, as a client retailer, will absolutely not work going forward without wholesale changes to how comics are made and produced. For example: rack copies for non-returnable periodicals? Almost certainly a complete non-starter for at least the first quarter afterwards. Accepting items added at the Final Order Cutoff date? Nope. Tolerating launches without clearly communicated marketing plans, and understanding of the scope of line expansions? Don’t be crazy. We’ve already had a number of years for a declining market for superhero comic periodicals: why would we jump both-feet-in back into that without real leadership and communication?

Marvel and DC have already lost my faith – the former from not telling us anything directly and plainly, the latter for being weasels in how they informed us about their digital first plans. What kind of “partners” are those?

Let me be clear: I’m not (that) worried about the medium of comics – things were booming before the plague for not-superhero material – but for Marvel and DC to rebuild my trust in their publishing plans, in the raw viability of superhero periodicals in post-COVID-19 America… well, they need to work for those sales starting immediately. Things can’t go back to what they were before, even if we wanted them to.

These are the conversations we should be having, because this “forced break” could actually end up with periodical comics being significantly stronger, more focused, and more appealing to non-readers on the other side if we can rethink and re-position how we do business.

To that end, a number of Direct Market retailers have started a first draft of the kind of post-crisis changes that need to be made. That document can be found here. That’s in no way complete, and maybe some of the points are not-workable, but we should be openly and honestly discussing all of them to figure out How To Make Comics Better when this is finally finished.

Stay Healthy!


Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, was a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, has sat on the Board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and has been an Eisner Award judge. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase two collections of the first Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) published by IDW Publishing, as well as find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here. Brian is also available to consult for your publishing or retailing program.

The post Tilting at Windmills #279: The Plague Diaries – How comics retailing moves forward appeared first on The Beat.

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