Tilting at Windmills

Fri, May 16th, 2008 at 12:07am PDT | Updated: June 19th, 2008 at 11:36pm

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

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BEGINNINGS AND ENDS

Everything old is new again!

Welcome to the latest iteration of TILTING AT WINDMILLS, a comics retailing-oriented opinion column that has run for (gulp) seventeen years!

The very first TILTING AT WINDMILLS ran in Krause Publication's (now F+W publications) "Comics Retailer" magazine (which then became "Comics and Game Retailer" magazine, and which ceased publication earlier this year (though they still have an online site which can be found right here)), and ran on May 1992. I eventually wrote something like 117 columns in "Comics Retailer," more or less monthly. The first thirty of so of those can be found online over here.

The first one hundred installments of TaW have been collected in book form by IDW, and can be purchased from them at this link.

TILTING AT WINDMILLS then found an online home over at Newsarama, where I wrote fifty installments (that index isn't quite up to date, is it?), and now we're at version 3 right here at Comic Book Resources, hooray!

What a long, strange trip it has been!

What I wrote in the first online Newsarama column, I think, still holds true:

"TaW is all about advocacy, about righting wrongs, and, above all else, passion and love for working in the comic book industry. Like Quixote I may charge blindly, but my heart is pure.

(I'm also, I'm sure you'll find, full of myself. Whether that's charming or not is up to you.)

I'll be covering a lot of topics here about the industry - some times an assessment of a company's efforts in the Direct Market, other times critiques of current trends - all with the goal of making the comics industry better. I'll try not to blow any smoke up your ass, either.

If you're not in "the industry", I hope this may still prove informative. There's a lot of weird misconceptions about how the Direct Market works floating about the 'net, and I hope that I can help illuminate at least how I see the various pieces fitting together."

Of course, we're in a period of flux in the comics industry, and things are changed more dramatically then they have in a while. Some of the challenges the comics industry faces - for example: distribution issues and how the rapid influx of material even gets to market in the first place - are very obvious and open topics, there's also other things that lurk below the surface, and my intent is to try and get at some of these things, and to see how the market is impacted.

I'm not the most precise writer in the world, and you'll probably find that sometimes I'll generalize more than I really should. So let me be as upfront about this as I possibly can be: my loyalty and focus really is to what we call the "Direct Market," that is the network of independently owned and operated comic book stores that dot the world.

Stipulated: some of the individual participants in the DM suck (or maybe "suck"). Sometimes because they are bad business people; sometimes because their business model is different than what you or I might want from a "comics store" (and there are many different things that many different people want - never assume that your preferred model is the right one for anyone other than you)

But I believe we shouldn't waste a lot of thought or breath on the "bad" stores - in the end, economic Darwinism tends to put the lousy places out of business.

Further stipulated: there are a lot of goofy, awkward, or perhaps even borderline evil things that have accreted or evolved over the last few decades in the Direct Market. Just because I love the DM, doesn't mean I love these things.

No, the DM is not perfect, by any means, but when all of the pieces are working correctly, it is largely as an egalitarian and open of a market as you are as likely to find anywhere. Cost of entry to a significant national marketplace for a creator, to sell physical objects, as compared to nearly any other medium, is virtually nothing, and it is entirely possible to do so and retain all the rights to your work every step of the way.

And, to me, that's a pretty amazing thing that is worth advocating for, and trying to preserve and protect.

In much the same way, I like the fact that the DM is formed primarily of individual owner-operated businesses. We live in a society that has given entirely too much power and through-weight to corporate entities with no concerns other than their own profitability, and to have an art form whose primary guardians are a set of people who do so out mostly from love and passion, and not from avarice, is a rare and wondrous thing.

I think this is an important consideration, because one of the most recent memes coming out of last month's New York Comic Con is that the chain bookstores are looking to reduce the amount of SKUs ("Stock Keeping Unit," or, in normal human English the number and breadth of titles) that they carry in the future.

Borders, et al. don't have any particular loyalty to the products that we sell - they view comics as one category (out of many many categories) that they stock, and if comics suddenly stopped being strong-performing tomorrow, they'll reduce or eliminate the category overnight without a look back.

Not so with the Direct Market - comics are our raison d'etre, our focus and our goal. You'll have to pry comics from our cold dead fingers to get us to stop selling them. Well, actually, that's a horrible metaphor - but you know what I mean: we're in this for the long haul, regardless of what vagaries of publishing may occur.

So, yeah, that my bias and that's my remit, and that's about as close to an introduction to this as you're likely to get.

Comics have spent most of its modern life trying to figure out how to get back into the public consciousness, to become a relevant part of the zeitgeist once again. And it seems to me that we've finally achieved that.

You can't swing a dead cat (note: please don't try swinging a cat, dead or otherwise) without hitting a story about comics in one way or another. Here's just a couple of examples: my wife was surfing some fashion website the other night, and called me over to show me an entire line of clothes and accessories based on comics (this was utterly unconnected to the recent fashion show at the Met).

Or the other day we were walking back from dinner and we passed a bank that had a "get a small business loan!" advertisement in their window. The featured business? A comic book store.

Everywhere I look there's something about comics, a near embarrassment of zeitgeisty richness, and it makes me think -- are our fifteen minutes nearly up?

I mean, really, not even ten years ago the simplest and quickest way for a film or television show to indicate that someone was a sub-literate idiot was to show that character with a comic book rolled up in their back pocket. Now we have fashion shows at the met, #1 box office movies, serious literary discussions of the merits of comics in schools and museums (even the San Francisco Jewish Community Center is currently in the middle of a lecture series on the subject of comics) - the cultural shift that comics have taken are nearly beyond imagining, and each and every day there's something new and interesting to report.

So why do I fear this is the beginning of the end?

Really, when things start oversaturating in this kind of fashion, that almost always means that a trend is over. Certainly comics sales are up, but it is in the aggregate, not especially on the individual books and creators that are being featured in these kinds of things. And I fear that those aggregate sales are up as much from increasing/over-production as they are from sustainable new demand.

Here's hoping that I'm wrong, however!

Originally in my first draft, I had something else entirely right here, but there's breaking news this week as Fantagraphics Books, Inc. (FBI) announces it is going exclusive with Diamond Comics Distribution as its Direct Market distributor, so let me throw all of that draft away, and talk about this deal a little.

In several practical ways, this isn't a particularly significant change -- it isn't like there are any other substantial functioning national distributors to choose from, it is almost like saying that the land has gone exclusive with the sea, y'know?

I guess what freaks me out (well, let's not oversell that, make it: "freaks me out") is that at this point there's, shy of Marvel going insane and starting their own distributorship again (knock wood!), really no chance of any competing national distributor ever forming again. FBI is pretty much to the last of the "significant majors" to sign - at this point probably three-quarters of Top 20 Diamond publishers are now exclusive - and FBI, love 'em or hate 'em (I'm personally in the "Love 'em!" camp) was probably the highest profile hold out.

To a degree this sends a signal that an era is over - if iconoclastic, rebellious, art-driven Fanta-frickin'-graphics has signed with Diamond, then it means that Diamond has completely won the Direct Market.

Here's the crazy thing though - it is probably accurate to say that unless they're contractually obligated to stock your entire line, Diamond is generally not going to do a great job in actually having your entire line in stock. When Diamond only consistently stocks x% of what you publish, where xhave to buy from the DM. For me, the difference is I'll no longer be allowed to buy directly from FBI. WW Norton is still carrying FBI's books for the book channel.)

With the move to exclusivity, FBI is going to go up to an "E" discount, or 5% better than it is now for what I assume are most Diamond accounts, so that should erase some of the disparity that FBI has had compared to other publishers of a like size. The fly in the ointment, as always, is Diamond's 3% reorder penalty, and while there are indications that it is going to go away very soon for web-based reorders, it is still there. Effectively this means that stores that bought directly from FBI are going to lose 3% of their discount. Since, presumably, the largest direct customers are also some of FBI's best customers, this could be a significant economic impact for stores.

There's something else in play as well, the Chicken and the Egg thing. How much of FBI's backlist doesn't sell because Diamond doesn't carry it, and how much did Diamond not carry because it didn't sell? As a retailer, I'm constantly frustrated by fill rates on non-exclusive work, but on the other hand, does Diamond make any money on filling an order of one copy of "Angry Youth Comics" #7 for me three times a year?

But, putting aside those questions, this should be a no worse than neutral, and probably a positive move for the majority of comics retailers financially.

Presumably FBI is undertaking this move with the assumption that this will increase sales enough to offset what I'm further presuming are increased costs for them (someone is eating that increased discount, and Diamond isn't historically one to cut into their own profit margins) - but it should give them better access to datamining tools, and being able to pinpoint promotions and publicity, which might make it worth it all by itself.

Something else to consider is that it may make periodical publishing more viable for FBI. They've been leaning away from periodicals in recent years (like the move of "Love & Rockets" to a once-a-year annual) [a move that, parenthetically, I don't think is actually going to do them any favors], but because Diamond will be "flooring" more inventory in Diamond's warehouses, and they're set to distribute periodicals in a fashion that a bookstore distributor simply isn't. I absolutely believe that low-cost publish-chunks-as-they're-done publishing is one of the key things that allowed cartoonists like Dan Clowes, Peter Bagge and the Hernandez Brothers to make their names, and is something that should be strongly pursued for new cartoonists and new voices.

Because Diamond wasn't stocking (or, at least, desultorily and indifferently stocking) new FBI periodicals (like, say, Jordon Crane's "Uptight"), there's a reasonable chance that there was a larger, unmet, demand for those periodicals that would lead them to being more financially viable. But the Chicken and the Egg is the big question mark.

Just doing some back of the envelope math, it is hard to see how this deal is going to work out to anything less than neutral for FBI - the increase in orders and fill rates should offset their additional costs - but it is hard to predict at this stage if it will be a significant increase in their profits because of those additional costs.

One thing it should help is in more effective use of manpower. FBI's Eric Reynolds is one of the best publicity and promotion guys in the comics industry, and I don't think I'm telling any tales out of school to say that Eric's efforts have often been stymied by Diamond bureaucracy and the inability to match supply to demand when the demand was the strongest. Hopefully FBI will have access to a much wider range of tools and possibilities that will allow them to really move the needle in a significant way.

FBI has also indicated that they believe that this will transform Jason Miles' (their sales manager) job from primarily dealing with invoicing and collecting payment and that sort of thing, to a more transformative selling function. I very much hope they're right.

There's only one financial loser in this that I can see: Tony Shenton, who is a sales rep for many "small press" and mini-comics publishers is going to be cut out, and I suspect it's a safe assumption that FBI was a reasonably significant portion of his sales. He'll have to get a lot more aggressive with the publishers remaining for him to rep.

Still and all, my biggest concern in all of this is what I said at the top of this section: Diamond's lock on Direct Market distribution is basically now complete, and while I think that Diamond is mechanically a fine partner (in terms of pick and pull, accuracy in fulfillment, and fixing problems), I'm always concerned with continuing to concentrate more power into one set of hands, and the more remote this makes any chance of wider distribution choices in the future.

It largely seems to me that the remaining significant publishers (among them Drawn & Quarterly, Slave Labor, Avatar, and Top Shelf) really should be looking closely at exclusivity themselves at this point, if only to ensure parity with FBI, and to ensure that their inventory is actually available when retailers want it.

And that kills me to type, honestly.

See you in 30 with more.

Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, and is a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, the Comics Professional Retailer Organization. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase a collection of the first one hundred Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) from IDW Publishing.

Discuss this story here on the TILTING AT WINDMILLS forum.

TAGS:  fantagraphics, diamond comics, distribution, direct market

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