Come In Alone: Issue #25

Fri, May 19th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Warren Ellis, Columnist

After talking about pre-orders and related activism the other week, I was contacted by Richard Davies of Red Route, a British distribution house, with a dissenting point of view. I was interested enough in this to question him further.

Tell the nice people about Red Route. What's its job? What market function do you see it fulfilling? What drove you to form it?

I'll try to break this down into separate bits, so please bear with me.

The job of Red Route is to provide a continuous supply of comics, graphic novels and related products that have a long shelf life. In real-life terms, that means that titles that are going to sell month after month like ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY, JOHNNY THE HOMICIDAL MANIAC, FREAK BROTHERS, SIMPSONS etc are all kept in stock, and can be supplied to retailers as and when they need them. This works for individual comics as well as graphic novels and trade paperbacks.

For the market, Red Route fits in to the pattern alongside Diamond. The normal pattern for a book is that a retailer will order it about 3 months prior to publication, Diamond (and/or FM International in the US) will ship it out the week of publication and then move on to the next week's books. The distributor may have over-ordered a small amount to deal with re-orders, but realistically, after about a month, most books are not going to still be in stock at the distribution level under this model. This is where Red Route (and in the US, Cold Cut and Last Gasp - possibly others I am unaware of) come in.

Obviously, some books are only going to have a demand at a retail level for that first month of release. If you take a standard super-hero book on a monthly release cycle, say one of the Superman books, most of the interest is going to focus on the latest issue to hit the racks, and with such established sell through patterns, most retailers have their numbers worked out to sell through one issue in time for the next. When you look at books that don't fit that frequent regularised publication pattern, however, it's much more difficult for retailers. The individual issues of a lot of books that we work with are essential parts of the story, and people interested in the series want to know that they can easily get the entire story, to read as a single entity.

With Red Route, stores can come to us on a weekly, monthly or whatever basis, and keep all the issues (or collections) in stock in shallow depth, knowing that they can come back whenever they sell to re-stock, they don't have to make that investment in stock at the point of publication. Also, having all the backlist of a book available means that retailers and their customers can pick up on a title that builds a following that they might have missed first time around. For instance, I hear of stores that are only just picking up now on JOHNNY and LENORE, which Red Route has been selling since our doors opened in late 1997. Until these books go out of print (not in the foreseeable future) a store can come to us and pick up the entire range of these books straight away.

What drove me to form Red Route? Well, a desire to make money and work with an artform I love. In conjunction with Tony Bennett of Knockabout Comics, we could see an opportunity to bring a wide range of backlist graphic novels and comics to UK and European retailers. It was an area that wasn't getting filled and there were sales being missed by publishers and stores. I had worked in comics retail for a couple of years full time after qualifying as a barrister (too many students, not enough work) and had worked in comic stores on and off from my time at high school upwards.

Are there things that stores go to you for in preference to Diamond?

Probably. We stock a lot of books that they list on their Star System, and we sell them, but I imagine they would say the same thing, and it would probably be true. Some things we carry in stock and they don't and vice versa. The great thing as I see it is that we give retailers a choice. We won't get upset if a retailer calls and says can you get me such-and-such, they don't have it in stock at Diamond. We are glad to sell the book and, hopefully, the next time, they call us first …!

In mail to me, you talked of your job as an attempt to "try to encourage a non pre-order dominated market." Can you expand on that? I know why I would rather see a non pre-order dominated market, but why do you?

This seems to be this summer's big retailer talking point. COMICS RETAILER (great magazine, by the way) has just run a few articles about it, the web boards seem to be debating it, etc. Last year it was returnability, this year it's pre-orders. I think that pre-orders can be a great thing and will remain the bedrock of the comics industry - it gives publishers confidence that they can publish a book and retailers access to good discounts.

The problem with pre-orders is at the consumer level when they become the focus of the retailer to the harm of his/her public faade. With the market contractions, a lot of retailers cut down the quantities of books the would order "for the racks" once they had filled standing orders, and once a book is not on the racks, for public browsing, the chances of it picking up a reader are very slim. This protected margins in the short-term at the expense of potential growth in the medium-to-long-term, and the books that bore the brunt of the cutbacks were the ones that would most benefit from the long term exposure. What Red Route recognises is that it is unrealistic to expect retailers to invest in a year's worth of a book in one month. That way lies horrible cash flow crunches. What would make for a healthy market is to be able to go into a store and have a wide range of product constantly available to the consumer, for the very reason that the same range is available to the retailer.

Further to this is the fact that comics seems to be the one industry that tries really hard not to make money out of it's existing work. In every other entertainment industry -- video games, films, books, music -- the best work is constantly available to be purchased at any time. Just because I wasn't around in the week or month that the Beatles released RUBBER SOUL and didn't put it on order for my weekly visit to the record dealer, doesn't stop me from buying it this week.

In recent years, this situation has improved a lot, and huge kudos to DC for being one of the best examples of keeping good material available, even if they are exclusive to Diamond. A personal example there is that (along with many others) even though I read every issue of Previews and set up a standing order for new books, I decided to pass on 100 BULLETS - it looked interesting, but not interesting enough. Then when Brian Azzarello started writing HELLBLAZER, I really liked his work, and the 100 BULLETS trade paperback was there waiting for DC to make a sale to me. If this can happen to a die-hard, knows-pretty-much-what-he-is-doing comics fan who works in the industry, the potential for back list sales to a more casual consumer is so much the greater if the material is available constantly, and the retail community is prepared to hand-sell.

If you don't mind answering: is your business in growth? Why do you think that's so? Are people coming around to the Red Route way of thinking, or are we doomed?

Yes, business is growing. Pretty much every month we supply a retailer we haven't sold to previously and most months we start buying books from a publisher we haven't bought from before. We have taken on a new member of staff in the warehouse and expanded our stock storage area. What is really gratifying though is seeing a retailer take a book on a recommendation and then come back for more and come back regularly. When people return for the same book month after month, you know that everyone is making money on that book.

I think retailers are looking to make money in any way they can, and holding and maintaining a strong stock of backlist books is an unspectacular but steady way of doing it. And that steady income stream is what bank managers, especially those who hold your overdrafts, like to see.

What's your opinion of the current condition and the future of the direct market?

I think that we're seeing an upturn that we are at the start of, for the good publishers and good retailers. The market is still very small and not reaching anything like its potential audience. But retailers that stock and restock a wise range of books, aimed at the whole paying public rather than just a small fan-dominated section of it, and construct their stores in a way to look appealing to the general public, coupled with publishers that support their works for the long-term, are seeing sales pick up and are building solid, profitable businesses. If someone looks to make large short-term profits as a creator, retailer or publisher, I don't think the conditions are there to do that in the same way they were in the early nineties. But the foundations for workable businesses are there.

And do you think anything, at this stage, can be done to change the condition of things? And do you have any examples or notions you're prepared to share?

I don't think that there is going to be an overnight revolution in the comics industry that suddenly leads to retailers and publishers all driving a different Porsche for every day of the week. POKEMON has provided a great influx of customers and cash to retailers, the challenge is now to keep just a few percent of those new customers when POKEMON loses its phenomenon status and turn them into regular readers.

The comics industry is very much a service based industry. At one point, running a good pull-and-hold system was good customer service, but nowadays pretty much every store does that. Now the next step is proactively searching for material that each customer may want but doesn't know about - visit conventions, search the shelves in bookstores, look on the internet and try to find, not the next big thing, but something that can be profitable for you. Keep customers happy. At Red Route we have introduced the concept from the book trade of single copy orders; any store can order a single copy of any book in our catalogue for a customer order and get free delivery on it for a smaller discount. Nobody gets rich doing single copy orders, but the consumer comes back happy that the store has gone that extra mile for him/her and if more than one person special-orders a book, then it's maybe a sign to the retailer that carrying that book in stock at normal discounts would work for them - slowly expanding the market.

Richard Davies, at Red Route Distribution, can be found by email at redroute@easynet.co.uk. Red Route are based at Unit 24, 10 Acklam Rd, London, W10 5QZ ENGLAND. Telephone: +44 (0) 20 8960 5855 Fax: +44 (0) 20 8968 7614

I can be contacted by email about this column at warren@comicbookresources.com. My terribly beautiful website, updated earlier this week and now containing an online store (carrying most things listed in INSTRUCTIONS) and a 24-hour rolling news service, is http://www.warrenellis.com. BAD WORLD, a new series of occasional articles by myself, is at http://www.themestream.com/gspd_browse/browse/view_column.gsp?column_id=6666.

INSTRUCTIONS: Read VISIONS by Michio Kaku (my copy is hardback, Oxford University Press, 1998), listen to the CD of SURFER ROSA also featuring the "Come On Pilgrim/Caribou" EP, by the Pixies (4AD, 1987, code CAD 803 CD), and hit Lobster: a journal of parapolitics, at http://www.lobster-magazine.co.uk/.

Today's recommended graphic novel is A CONTRACT WITH GOD by Will Eisner, republished by DC Comics this month.

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