The Basement Tapes: Issue #48

Tue, August 9th, 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.

Continuing on from last week: while the big publishers might be treating retailers like fans, where does that leave retailers? What are they doing to protect themselves, to grow their businesses, and to ensure their own longevity? September, it seems, is going to be the biggest month for the DM in a long time... good news if your Marvel or DC, but what about the other publishers?

CASEY: So, last week we talked about the publisher-retailer relationship and what might be wrong with it. I'll admit, I gleefully laid a lot of the blame at the publishers' feet. And rightly so, I think. They're the ones with the real power here...

... or are they?

Okay, so the retailers. What's their real place on the food chain? Are they at the mercy of the forces that exist (conspire?) on either side of them (publisher and consumer)? Last week we discussed the situation where publishers are treating retailers like fans (to the detriment of the entire industry, imho). But, for the sake of filling column inches, let's take it the other way: In other words, do retailers really act like fans and thus deserve their collective perception by the publishers?

FRACTION: Simplest answer: some, sure. Good apples and bad, there are good stores and weak ones and great ones in the world.

DC stopped sending out their b&w previews of books to retailers because Chuck Rozanski of Mile High Books was scanning them and putting them up on his website... and he claims-- not that I doubt him, but I don't know how to otherwise source it-- to be the largest comics retailer in the United States. So, boom, no more black and white previews for anybody.

Or take, for example, my town, where one retailer, trying to get the jump on the others in town, began to put his new books out Tuesday night. Word got out and Diamond now doesn't deliver to any shop in town before Wednesday morning. That's amateur shit and the rest of the local markets suffered whatever slings and arrows there were to suffer because of it. So, sure, on one hand? Yeah, absolutely.

On the other hand-- one size shouldn't fit all.

CASEY: Absolutely. It's one of those things where perhaps all retailers are being painted with the same brush. And it really sucks. I agree the bad apples -- at this point -- are probably few and far between and for all retailers to endure some sort of punishment is something pretty close to the neighborhood of unfair.

I dunno... is it too much for publishers -- or Diamond, as your example suggests -- to actually single out retailers when they discover someone's being an asshole (leaking privileged info, breaking protocol, etc)? Or is it just easier to beat down everyone for the actions of a few misguided small businessmen?

I will say, though, sometimes retailers can be a pretty reactionary bunch, the kind of community that loves the occasional soapbox to stand on and proclaim their righteous indignation. Not that they don't have an argument, but this does seem to be an industry that's often spoiling for a fight.

Okay, though... let's widen the lens a bit. You could argue that it's fine for publishers, distributors and retailers to have their little squabbles, but at what point does the industry as a whole suffer? Aren't we too tight-knit as a culture that the average consumer can't help but feel the effects of these passive aggressive situations?

FRACTION: I know there are retailers that are quite happy with their wares and aren't looking to expand their stock one whit-- which is RAD, if you're working within the superhero mainstream. Which I'm not. So, let's not talk about that sector. The industry as a whole suffers when publishers and the distributor make it too financially risky to look outside of the top 100 Usual Suspects for revenue streams.

I mean, there's no magic bullet-- weak books, weak creatives and everything on up can happen, have happened, and will happen again, no doubt-- but Marvel and DC are locked in a game of perpetually one-upping the other and they all have shareholders to whom they're held accountable. So the big two game the system the best they can to reach paralytic détente and they really don't have any other choice. And the last bust was so bad, very few retailers can afford not to not play along.

And that's where that particular shit rolls down onto the consumer's lap-- when a retailer just can't afford to look outside of the big two and new ideas, new books, new legacies and new flagships never get a fighting chance to leave the launch-pad.

CASEY: Maybe what's needed is some sort of self-policing on the retailer community's part. I mean, if they can't depend on the publishers to see the difference between serious retailers and weekend warriors, then I'd imagine their only choice is to at least clean up their own backyard as best they can, go back to the publishers and basically demand to be treated like business partners.

Hearing about something like ComicsPRO from retailers Joe Field (Flying Colors in Concord, CA) and Amanda Fisher (Muse Comics in Missoula, Montana) gives me some hope. The idea that the connectivity of the retail community can lead to them having a stronger voice in our industry is exactly where we should be headed. Hell, everyone should be owning their power in this culture... retailer, publisher, creator and consumer alike...

FRACTION: Wow, holy shit, they've got a group health plan. Fuckin' inkers need to sell plasma to take their kid to a dentist and these guys are putting together a health plan. Nice one, Amanda and Joe...

The common wisdom says that 10% of the stores do 90% of the business. And the guess is that there're around 2000 stores out there now. So the lion's share of movement come from 200 stores, give or take. The big two can crow about big selling books all they like, THAT'S the number everyone should be interested in. Not the 200K the summer stunt moved-- we need to start growing the number of places that book is moving.

When comics come out of a year that sees 3000 markets open, 4000-- then you've turned some kind of corner. So, fuck yeah, anything retailers can do to hang together's gotta help. or surely they'll all hang separately...

CASEY: Y'know, I'm not necessarily disturbed by the number of retailers we've got right now... but it is that 10% vs. 90% that kills me. Here's some naiveté shining through... wouldn't it be great if we got the other 90% of the retailers to pick up some of the slack, and start doing what the wildly-successful 10% of the stores are already doing? I mean, the way I see it, 4000 retailers means even more weekend warriors and dangerous fan mentalities behind the counter. But if we had 2000 great stores... now that's an industry. That's a retail community that the publishers have to treat with respect.

God, why don't I just ask for a billion dollars while I'm at it...?

FRACTION: I know, right? I mean, at the end of the day that 90% is either unwilling or unable to grow-- either you've got guys quite comfortable with The Android's Dungeon deal or you've got guys that are working hand-to-mouth shops in new, untested, or tough marketplaces. And, like, you've got to have your staple product to build the pyramid. Which, as Marvel and DC are more and more interested in providing nothing more than those products, isn't the easiest thing to do if you've got mouths to feed and bills to pay.

Not like I imagine The Powers That Be wringing their hands in delight as more comic stores close down, but it's pretty clear where the operating capital is flowing, you know?

CASEY: One thing I don't think the industry enjoys is complexity. It likes things as simple as possible. That's where the "painting all retailers with one brush"-mentality springs from. That's where the befuddlement that Hollywood has taken over Comic-Con comes from. That's where the puzzlement at manga's success comes from. That's where retailers who don't act accordingly or grow their business comes from.

But real business is complex. And being successful at it is no simple matter. Guys like James Sime make it look simple, but we know it's not.

Maybe publishers are simply looking at the majority of retailers and break out the Thorspeak, "Physician, heal thyself" and waiting for them to get their shit together... collectively, so that they can still paint them all with the same brush, but that brush then becomes the Professional Business Partner, not the Fan With A Diamond Account And A Cash Register.

FRACTION: My rule of thumb has always been, okay, say Marvel or DC spontaneously stop publishing tomorrow. No more books shipped, no more product, nothing. How many retailers could outlive one of the big two? Because the default business paradigm is on a Marvel-DC-Everything Else tripod, it's completely weakened and near-incapable of growth. Economic Darwinism, you know? Complexity, diversity. That's what makes for a healthy ecosystem, not A, B, and C.

DC has made the most attempts at diversifying themselves but, really, that's all just seemed like the best of intentions and no actual muscle behind the venture. Selah.

Were I a retailer, I'd be worried that publishers are starting so very clearly to get serviced elsewhere. The number of book trade initiatives they've been making is a big fucking red flag. Add to this the increasingly hostile stance on manipulating the top of the charts and the rest of the system-gaming they've been up to and you've got manufacturers forcing markets into redline territory. The more I think about it, I don't think the publishers are treating retailers like fans, they're treating them like ATMs. And you can only withdraw your max before the machine's empty.

CASEY: Look, I think DC "diversifies" (which means, they tolerate their sub-imprints) because they don't want to look as old as they really are. It's a means to keep that "tripod" you referred to intact. Or, as Stan Lee might say, "not change, but the illusion of change." And I'm not just saying that because I'm bitter about the INTIMATES cock-up...

But the retail business has to change. It has to evolve. Amanda and Joe know that, hence the ComicsPRO endeavor, which could turn out really fucking great for a lot of people. But they're fighting an uphill battle, no doubt about it. I suppose the big hat trick would be for retailers to not only realize how indispensable they really are to the big publishers... but how much more indispensable they could be if they galvanized themselves? I mean, if I were a retailer, I wouldn't depend on the publishers for anything when it comes to the health of my business. It's a fan's job to put faith in the publishers, it's the retailers' job to make money off of them.

FRACTION: It's not enough to just grow thumbs! You gotta use 'em! And, if you're right and I suspect you are, that DC doesn't really want them, then DC certainly doesn't know what to do with them.

I agree, too, that the DM needs to change. The warning signs are within and without-- hell, I had a bet with Rich Johnston that Marvel would release ULTIMATES V2 #1, as an pre-order incentive, digital document first through Dynamic Forces or Mile High as a value-add, just to test the waters... and, while I lost, I don't think that event is too far off-- the end is nigh and the DM has got to save itself. Nobody else is gonna do it...

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