The Basement Tapes: Issue #47

Tue, August 2nd, 2005 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Joe Casey & Matt Fraction, Columnist

Sometimes, this is what happens when two writers e-mail each other:

An ongoing conversation behind closed doors, equal parts experience, opinion, critique, and outright rambling, THE BASEMENT TAPES are an attempt to present somewhat serious discussion about the somewhat serious business of comicbooks between two writers waist-deep in the perplexing and ever-evolving morass of their own careers.

A salute to retailers. The front lines of the comicbook Direct Market. So many great stores out there, striking new ground and improving on how this business works in a multitude of ways. But, is it enough? Is there more to be done? Retailers can only do so much… what can the publishers do to help them? So many questions… let's explore some answers…

CASEY: Seems like now that we've done a column on it, everybody's talking about the state of Hype in the comicbook "mainstream," eh? All kinds of opinions crawling out of the woodwork, both pro and con. I say the more discussion, the better. And some of that discussion has brought me to another related point that I think might actually be somewhat valid (as opposed to most of the other points I make)...

There's a system in place right now. The water rolls downhill, so to speak. Publishers solicit their product to retailers... retailers order that product and place it on their store shelves... readers enter shops and buy said product.

Okay, that's how the system should work. But, sadly, that's not the world we live in, is it...?

Publishers release solicitations for Month X... readers pick them apart, either online or via the PREVIEWS catalog... retailers pick them apart, as well... readers decide what they want to buy (to sell)... retailers order their product... more solicitations for subsequent Months Y and Z come out in the meantime... retailers put the product they ordered for Month X on store shelves ... readers, already two months ahead of the Month X product on the shelves, enter shops and feel like they've already read the books that are, technically, brand new... sales overall kinda suck... publishers inflate sales with big events and variant covers... and so on and so on...

It's a weird daisy chain, isn't it? Here I thought that it was publishers and retailers on one side of the fence (the professional side), working together to make and sell comicbooks... and on the other side of the fence, we have the readers, the fans, the consumers (the non-professional side). But more and more, retailers are complaining that the publishers aren't giving them adequate information in the solicitations to properly sell the books to their customers. Publishers claim that, since both readers and fans are privy to said solicitations, they have to keep their cards close to the vest, lest they spoil any story secrets. So, what ends up happening is, in my opinion, a grievous error in judgment on the publishers' part...

... publishers are treating retailers like fans instead of business partners.

So, am I way off the mark here? Or do you see what I'm getting at...?

FRACTION: Yeah, sure, that's obviously pretty true. When publishers are announcing sellouts at Diamond they're very clearly not talking to you and me on Wednesday morning. It's like if Duracell announced a sellout at their distribution hub and expecting people at Wal-Mart to go clamoring for batteries-- the DM is a three part circuit from publisher to distributor to vendor and lately the publishers are focusing on the distributor only.

Which-- okay, it kind of sucks as a fan these days sometimes-- really begs the question as to what's going on between publishers and the DM. Am I wrong for interpreting all this as some kind of shape-up-or-ship-out tough-love phase as the book trade comes knockin' on the back door?

CASEY: Hey, I think it's safe to say that a good number of retailers in the DM are fans, otherwise why would they be sticking with this business (which ain't easy, by any stretch of the imagination)? But that doesn't mean they have to be regarded as nothing more than fans by the publishers who supply them.

I do think you're onto something, bringing in the bookstore market as a comparative system. There's much less of a "human" touch in that marketplace. I've seen DC's catalog to booksellers, and it's as sparse as the PREVIEWS catalog in terms of providing information that a bookseller can use to inform his decision. Then again, the bookstore market is a returnable market, isn't it? The risk is significantly less than it is for DM retailers. So let's get back to them...

Should the publishers provide more info to the retailers without fearing that info leaking out to the general readership? Should readers even be privy to solicitations?

There's no easy answers. These days, some retailers wouldn't even order certain books if readers didn't have that advance warning and were able to tell their retailer to order a particular book. So, is that a reader doing a retailer's job for them? Possibly... but that means a retailer doesn't have the correct amount of info to decide whether or not to order a certain book.

Maybe there should be two versions of the PREVIEWS catalog... an extensive, info-laden version that would be retailer-only and a sparser version that would be accessible to the readers, to let them know what's on the horizon in the most general way. Now, I realize what I just suggested is probably logistically impossible, but something's got to be done. Marvel tried to go with zero solicit info for awhile, and for the readers it was great... but probably not so much for the retailers.

Catch-22, right...?

FRACTION: Isn't everything working out just fine and dandy for DC and Marvel, though? As of the last 300 List, all but 1 of the top 100 titles were from the Big Two. Sure there's a lot of stunt titles on that list, but I'm sure newer, better, bigger stunts are being readied to replace 'em...

That said, I don't really work for Marvel and DC, so from my perspective ANY tool to better arm, better inform, and better prepare retailers into everything that's not in the front part or the falling-out-part of PREVIEWS is a good idea. Anything that can be done to get a retailer aware and interested in a small or independent press project is a good idea. You know, as well as I, no comic sells so fast as the one sold hand to hand by the man behind the glass counter.

If PREVIEWS remained the size it's at but took everything not comics and put it in a separate guide, and used that excess of pages (more than half, were I to guess) and used for more productive solicitation copy and art previews we'd be a lot better off.

And I think readers DO need solicitation copy, but it needs to be a more meaningful thing than the 80 words we got now. Think, like, the text on the back cover of a paperback. DC has a full color page to show, y'know, Batman punching Superman in the face, and enough space on the page to frame the cover by lots of white and blah blah blah. The solicit for 5 FISTS is an 80 word text blurb, and most likely a half-page black and white ad trapped in a sea of other blurbs and other comics. It's tough, trying to interest readers and retailers. Is 80 words enough to go on, if you were a retailer?

I mean, this 52 series that DC is talking about means, what, a retailer would have 8 issues ordered before a single one hit the stands. If I were a retailer... I mean, shit, what are these poor guys and gals supposed to do? Wave a bloody chicken's foot over a Ouiji board, you'll get just as accurate a guess.

CASEY: Okay, now we're getting somewhere. What we need to consider, again, is the differences between information valuable to retailers and information valuable to readers/consumers.

I agree, retailers should have as much info as possible, even if that contains spoilers that might just cut into their enjoyment as fans. Hey, them's the breaks, right? If you're a retailer, you can be a fan, but don't act like one when it comes to your business. If you've got the information, place your orders based on business concerns, not just fanboy concerns. And treat that extra, possible-spoiler info with the respect it deserves. Don't leak shit to the fans. Be a businessMAN, fer chrissakes! Like I say, if you've got the information... and I don't think they do right now.

As for the readers/consumers, I'm really of a mind that readers should simply have one piece of pre-release info to make some sort of judgment on whether or not they're interested in a particular comicbook...

... the cover.

Yup, that's it. And in this info dump/media crammed environment we all live in, I don't care if that seems anemic or not. When I was a kid buying comicbooks, that's all I ever had to go on: the covers that I saw on the rack. And, goddammit, comicbooks sold so much more back then...! A cool cover sold a comicbook. Whether it was the design, the artwork, the cover content, the blurbs, whatever... it's that kind of consumer/creative Darwinism that we've somehow lost.

Admittedly, the onus is on the publishers to make those covers kick so much ass, they cannot be denied. But that's part of the fun of it, isn't it? One-upmanship on an art and design level, as opposed to a Hype level.

But as long as the publishers treat retailers like fans... or as long as retailers continue to act like fans (pick whichever side of the fence you feel like standing on), this ain't happening.

Whaddya think...?

FRACTION: I think you're underestimating the power of genuine word of mouth, especially if it's coming from a trusted retailer-- when enthusiasm is genuine and it comes from someone you the consumer trust, that goes a long way, you know? And it's comics, baby. I WANT a retailer to have fannish enthusiasm. A high tide raises all ships and all that-- but, as Pollyanna-ish as this sounds, give me one guy that genuinely loves a book over ten thinking it's smart business to push that book any day.

I mean-- okay, look, even if you read the some of the savviest and most-like-your-taste comics blogs, you see folks say WAY too often "My shop didn't get X..." and hence, no blog love, right? Which means you've got a smart and vocal audience that don't or won't pre-order from PREVIEWS (or their retailers don't do customer pre-orders, which is a whole 'nother column...). Let's say the latter isn't the case, though, and you've got a retailer that'll order whatever you ask for... if you ask for it. And if you don't ask, you won't see CAPOTE IN KANSAS, STREET ANGEL, GUNNED DOWN, or ICE HAVEN, to name four books I dug lately. And it's certainly not because a retailer doesn't want your money or your business-- it's because, well, you do the summer math. 20 copies of CROSSOVER FUCK FUCK EXPLOSION or 2 copies of a book about Truman Capote researching IN COLD BLOOD? It's an ancient fucking argument, but pre-ordering unknown quantity books is a crapshoot for too many retailers that live and die by hard math.

We need a PREVIEWS that better arms retailers to sell things that aren't CROSSOVER FUCK FUCK EXPLOSION which, by all accounts, should pretty much sell itself.

CASEY: I agree, word of mouth is essential. And obviously, retailers should be enthusiastic about their product, especially the ones they like. But word of mouth -- genuine word of mouth -- can only occur after a book has shipped and is available for everyone to read. Hype is about creating word of mouth before a book ships and I don't think retailers are well-served by it, at least not how it's being done at the moment.

What I'm saying is that there should never be a product considered "unknown quantity books." Retailers should always have the necessary amount of info that will allow them to properly sell their product. That's all I'm saying. Even if they aren't fans of a particular series or storyline, they should at least have the info handy to properly inform their customers about it. And right now, they don't.

And the fact that it's hard math should be mitigated by knowing your customer base. If a retailer has a customer that likes a certain Oni book (or books), then why wouldn't that retailer order at least one copy of CAPOTE IN KANSAS? Or, at the very least, have a discussion with that customer about whether or not they might want it? Shouldn't a retailer know their customer base at least that much? Is it too much work? I dunno... I'm not a retailer. But it is a bit like someone asking me if it's too much work to write 22 pages of G.I. JOE every month. It may very well be hard for some people, but it's my job so I do it with all the gusto I can muster. And if it was too much work for me, then someone else should be doing it, right...?

I think retailers are busting their ass to be successful at their jobs. What I'm saying is, at this point, it's obvious the publishers aren't helping them as much as they could be (or, frankly, should be). And I don't even break it down to an argument between CROSSOVER ORGY EVENT vs. INDY JEWEL. It's about the publishers' responsibilities to their retail partners.

FRACTION: Ah, okay-- okay, yeah. But, you're a small publisher-- because, really, that's who we're talking about here-- how do you get heard? You can have web resources but that still requires a degree of pro-activity by a retailer that for one reason or the other they may not have. And that kind of assumption ordering just might not fly if you're living and dying by the sales of CROSSOVER ORGY EVENT, right? And, I mean, there are a lot of retailers out there that count days where they keep their heads above water as being good fucking days. Add to that the big two have perfected their tickle-and-slap-fight sales technique to the point that they've got 99 of the top 100 sales slots and-- a retailer's gonna have to go for the sure money, assuming they even CARE that there's unsure money out there.

And, here goes the argument chasing its own tail, why should they? When publishers aren't getting the word out in the first place and and and and...

I wanna lie down.

Hey, here's a question for you. My store, every Wednesday puts a pile of NEXT week's Marvel and DC books by the register that you can flip through. And sometimes I'll see things like, y'know, the Dan Curtis Johnson & J.H. Williams & Seth Fisher LOTDK series is coming out and get it added to my pull for the next week. Or, whatever the book is. They seem to have most of the big two's books (save the DEATHORGY CROSSFUCK SHITHOUSE books, which I'd guess are embargoed for, uh, secret-ass secret stuff) right there. Wither Image, Oni, Dark Horse, etc. etc. etc.?

Is the solution something like, gee, PREVIEWS should be free? Or more pages for the small press that need that kind of exposure? I guess I don't see a magic bullet, is what I'm saying.

CASEY: Yeah, well... change always starts with the entity with the deepest pockets, because they can afford to experiment. In the publisher-retailer-reader relationship, that's the publisher. It's my whole argument here... publishers should treat retailers as business partners and not as fans. It's the mantra for the week, my friend.

The "first look" books you refer to simply cost money. They cost the retailer money to get them, and I assume they cost the publishers money to provide them. That's why it's generally only the Big Two. Image has done it occasionally, and I know IDW has sent things directly to retailers for previewing purposes.

You mentioned retailers' penchant (or lack thereof) of "pro-activity." Seeking out relevant sales-related materials online (if so provided by the publisher). This is another area where publishers and retailers should meet in the middle. I think Marvel has some sort of online, retailer-only info section, although I've heard retailers complaining that it's still not enough to help them sell product to their customers. But publishers on the whole should strive to maybe have private, retailer-only online content. Or maybe even take It a step further than that…

Hell, let's take INFINITE CRISIS as an example (I think HOUSE OF M may be a lost cause for purposes of analysis). If I were King of DC Comics, knowing that two of my most well-regarded creators (in this case, Geoff and Phil) were doing their jobs to the best of their abilities, I'd probably try to get as much of the series in the retailers' hands as early as possible (meaning, photocopies of completed issues... lettered and everything). Let every retailer in America read the damn thing way early, and let them base their orders on what they read DC always has it up on Marvel in this particular area since, for the most part, they have things in the can for months before it hits the stands. So this kind of full retailer preview is possible. Now, there would need to be a degree of trust on DC's part that the retailers don't blab everything about the series to their customers or on the Net. But that's part of respecting your business partners, isn't it...? The point is, retailers should get more of an advance look at content other than the four-page WIZARD preview that just ran…

But it then becomes all about a publisher's faith in their own product. Which is as it should be. Why not let retailers in on something early, if you're really proud of it? If the retailers like what they see and read, think they can sell truckloads of it, then they'll order truckloads of it and the system works. It's this idea of somehow tricking retailers into ordering heavy based on Hype instead of Content that makes me bristle, y'know...?

FRACTION: Suresure. I don't see the big picture, long term strategic benefits in treating your vendors like a bunch of children, nor do I see the virtue in not arming them with as many tools as possible to MAKE YOU SHITLOADS OF MONEY. Then again, if the comics business is good at anything, it's cutting off its face to spite its tiny little nose.

CASEY: Here's another cute little mantra for the ages: It Doesn't Have To Be This Way.

Does it…?

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