Tilting at Windmills

Fri, March 27th, 2009 at 6:32pm PDT | Updated: March 27th, 2009 at 6:34pm

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer
1

ComicsPRO:2009

What I liked the best about this year’s annual meeting of the ComicsPRO membership was just how well we worked together – about how much energy and passion and enthusiasm everyone brought to the table, and how well we were able to leverage that for moving the organization dynamically forward.

Let me back up a few steps though and set the stage here.

ComicsPRO is the Comics Professional Retailers Organization (ah, acronyms, how we love thee), a trade organization for Direct Market retailers that was formed five years ago to address the needs and desires of the DM. As one of the original founders, my focus really came in the wake of the Marvel anti-trust lawsuit. Having gone through the incredibly screwed up process of having to sue a major supplier to get them to, y’know, live up to the contract they created, I was really concerned with trying to figure out a way to make such an action completely unnecessary. Retailers and publishers should be able to sit down and negotiate, but as long as we were all single entities speaking on behalf of our singular concerns, getting publishers to give credence to what we were saying was exponentially more difficult.

Seriously, “It is just you,” is something DM retailers hear all the time. And without some sort of mechanism to refute that isolating stance, we’re much easier to ignore.

So we have a trade organization to bring us together, to communalize and aggregate our concerns, to have our voices raised together to show our suppliers the seriousness and commonalities of the retailer’s needs.

And it is working.

ComicsPRO is currently about 140 members representing about 180 individual stores. Membership is up strongly (40%, if I recall correctly) from last year, and the growth doesn’t show any signs of stopping. We had about 100 attendees at this year’s meeting, which seems fairly remarkable to me given the overall state of the National economy – meeting attendance was up by some 20% from last year, in fact.

There have been several attempts over the years to create comics retailing trade groups, but this is the first one that really seems to be “sticking” – our membership is around twice what the last strong attempt was able to garner, and I think it is reasonable to believe that we’re going to hit over 200 members sometime this year. That’s still well short of my own personal goals – I won’t be happy until we cross 300, personally – but there’s been direct, steady growth each and every year, and people want to be involved.

This is the third national meeting – the first two were held in Las Vegas – and this time we switched coasts and held it in Memphis, Tennessee. With an internal policy to keep the meeting in the same place for two years on each pass (to avoid having to “reinvent the wheel” when it comes to scouting and organizing the facilities), we’ll also be in Memphis in 2010, and I, for one, could not be happier.

It was an extremely good hotel – in fact I don’t think I’ve ever had food that was as good at any industry event, ever… except maybe the first year DC had a RRP in Montreal – and, perhaps more importantly, we very nearly had it to ourselves. Too often comics events share venues and dates with other large events creating odd frictions between disparate groups. Not so here – we barely even saw any other hotel guests, and we had the bars and lobby very nearly to ourselves the entire time.

Also, unlike in Vegas, there are fewer distractions in Memphis, and essentially none whatsoever in walking distance. This gave us a great deal more focus, I think.

Additionally, Diamond’s main warehouse (more about that later) is located maybe 20 minutes away in Olive Branch, Mississippi, which gives us a reasonable other reason to be in the area.

More generally, the value in ComicsPRO holding our own event is that it is our event, and that subtly changes the power dynamics of the conversations. The most common type of industry gathering is your basic comics convention. The focus there is on fans first, and if you’re really, really lucky, there might be a single programming track (out of ten or more) that is aimed at retailers. More likely, it is a single panel, or perhaps a pair of them.

The next level “up” is the Distributor trade show. In the modern comics industry that means Diamond, though back in the day Capital City had trade shows as well. The Distributor trade show is really more about the vendors at the end of the day – there’s typically a booth-style set-up like a normal comics convention and a number of panels where publishers present to us. But conversation is filtered through the prism of what the vendors want to accomplish. What you also get at this level is a lot of retailers who are there more for the swag than anything else. Obviously, it costs a lot in time and energy to attend a show, and having a way to recoup your expenses is perfectly fine, but I’ve witnessed feeding frenzies at giveaways at these kinds of events, and situations where greed outweighs common sense.

Finally, the rarest type of event is one run by a specific publisher. Really, this is limited to DC’s “RRP” meetings, which happen every three years or so, and which have an invitation-only structure. This means that a lot of retailers can’t attend, even if they want to. Because a certain percentage of expenses are being covered by DC (Hotel, flights over a particular dollar amount), we are beholden to the publisher from the moment we arrive. RRP meetings are incredibly productive things, but they’re much more for DC’s benefit than for the retailers.

The fundamental difference between these events and the ComicsPRO meeting is that, at ComicsPRO, we are the ones putting on the show. It is our house, our agenda, and our suppliers are there at our request, not the other way around. All programming is aimed at the working retailer to improve their circumstances, and all meetings with publishers and distributors follow our agendas. Retailers who attend are there to work, not to get swag (though we also have plenty of swag, too), and all attending retailers are expected to actually participate, not merely grab their swag and leave. The psychological difference between this and the other types of shows is enormous.

I have no doubt that the DM retailer is being taken more seriously because of ComicsPRO and our meetings. When we talk about problems we perceive, we’re specifically trying to come up with solutions to those problems, not merely bitch about them. We’re able to focus much more on issues that universally focus on all retailers, rather than the usual “Well, they didn’t put a copy of this individual comic in my individual shipment last week” kind of thing.

This is enormous. It really can’t be overstated just how big the difference in mood and tone and, most importantly, productivity, is between the models. At ComicsPRO, we’re there to work, and to move through an agenda of specific, actionable points to make things better for all stores, big or small, urban or rural.

And it seems to be working.

ComicsPRO has three days of events at our annual meeting, so let me talk you through what happened during these days.

Our first day, for the first time this year, we let DC sponsor the entire day. In some respects, it was essentially an “open” RRP meeting. There was liberal Q&A time, but, largely, it was a series of presentations to us. I tend to think that this kind of presentation format is more valuable to the publisher than it is to the retailers, and I have some reservations about continuing to give a single publisher an entire day, but at the core of it is that DC is the only publisher who stood up and indicated they wanted to work with us to such an extent. This is usually the case, of course, DC is and has been the best business partner the Direct Market has ever had – they behave responsibly towards retailers in a manner than the rest of the top five publishers combined have never been able to muster, and it’s a real pleasure to work with them in these kinds of venues, because they’re willing to try and synch their agendas to ours. DC’s problems have never been on the “responsiveness to and responsibility with” side of the table, and until another vendor is willing to step up to the degree that DC does, yeah they get to have “DC Day” at the ComicsPRO meeting.

Speaking only for myself, I’m hopeful that next year we’ll have several publishers willing to take a greater and more active role, and that “DC Day” can become “DC morning.” I’d like to see each of the four brokered publishers taking an equal commitment to supporting the organization and in working with our client retailers to move forward, and signs are good that we can make this happen in 2010 and beyond.

The second day was largely based around ComicsPRO business. After listening to Board President Joe Field discuss the progress ComicsPRO made this year and our general objectives for the next year, we let membership define the things that they wanted to do this year, and we broke up into committees to divide those areas into specific plans of action. The specific committees that I am the Board liaison to (and we’ll be announcing these things formally over the course of the next month) were incredibly productive things – everyone had a voice, but we were able to directly target how we wanted to handle things with a minimum of wasted time and effort. To be able to walk out of a committee meeting with specific goals and specific assignments on how to achieve those goals is a pretty wonderful thing. Getting stuff done, yeah!

Photo by Joe Field, Flying Colors Comics

The third day was largely dedicated to retailer-to-retailer programming – there were a number of presentations, like “How to build a successful in store event” by Atom! and Portlyn Freeman of Brave New Worlds, or “Building effective security systems” by Ben Trujillo of Starclipper (just to name a few) – focusing on nuts and bolts things we can each do to make our individual stores better and stronger. We also did our annual elections (With Joe Field, Chris Powell and myself all retaining our Board seats, thanks very much), and capped the day with a tour of Diamond’s new warehouse. Walking into the warehouse really is like the final scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” this huge facility stretching back out to your visual vanishing point.

A few words on that: Diamond pretty much catastrophically screwed the pooch for reorders in February – the move from their old facility to this new one went wrong in just about every way possible. Reorders ground to a halt, really undercutting the momentum of hot new GN releases like “Scott Pilgrim” v5, and costing the industry a whole lot of sales of “Watchmen” just as the marketing for the film was reaching its peak. Some of the horror stories out that are pretty unbelievable – Diamond employees told us one about a store who ordered 250 copies of a specific comic receiving those copies in 250 separate boxes, one copy to a box. Ooops!

See, the new warehouse is an amazing marvel of technology. Everything is picked by voice activation, and they have this machine which knows the size and shape and weight of every object – well, or will once they work out the kinks. If a column is mis-entered, like in the case of those 250 separate boxes where the computer system apparently thought the individual comic had the weight of the case quantity, then things will be picked incorrectly, but they seemed like they were well on their way to working out most of those problems.

The nice thing about seeing the warehouse is while it doesn’t allow us to forgive the mistakes that Diamond made in February (and most of March), at least it gave us a basis to understand those mistakes. Just seeing these four-story tall Rube Goldberg-like contraptions with multiple ramps and slides made it all a lot clearer just what they’re going through right now.

There were a number of publishers who attended the meeting. Besides DC’s major sponsorship, there were also representatives from Dark Horse, Image, Top Cow, Graphitti, Tales of Wonder, and Marvel on hand. Marvel’s publisher, Dan Buckley, gave what was meant to be a “keynote” address – though it happened on day #2, and really focused on Marvel rather than the larger industry. Still, it was very good to hear directly from Marvel’s lips that we’re their largest and most important customer and that they don’t see that changing at any point in the near future. There was also a great deal of discussion about Marvel’s digital plans, and they’re indicating that their intention there is to use digital to drive new customers into brick-and-mortar DM stores. It is up to you to decide how sincere these statements really were, but I, at least, am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt at this stage to see if their promises match reality.

Photo by Joe Field, Flying Colors Comics

Next year, I think, the major challenge for the organization is to get a larger, wider pool of publishers to attend – this needs to be seen as the event you can’t miss if you intend to sell into the Direct Market. And, Board of Director position or not, really do think that is the case. The level of focus and professionalism on the part of the attending retailers was sky high, and the amount of information, specific useful practical information that will generate higher sales and lower levels of frustration, was worth way more (exponentially more!) than the costs of attending.

What impresses me about so many of the attending retailers is in just how many of them stated that sales were no worse than flat, and more typically up. In this crazy international economy, that’s an amazing thing to hear (and matches my own experiences as well – business is solid!); obviously a few retailers are reporting down sales, but it certainly felt that all of those people are walking home with ten practical actionable ways to help turn that around. That’s solid gold.

For myself, I walked away realizing that I’m not as good of a retailer that I want to be. Twenty years of doing anything (and Comix Experience will be 20 on 4/1) can leave you jaded, but I’m more pumped up about the state of our business, and the possibilities for more, than I ever have from any industry event, ever.

Retailers can work together to better themselves and to better the business for everyone, ComicsPRO is doing that every day. Add your voice to the membership, and help us do that much more. Join today!

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. An Index of v2 of Tilting at Windmills may be found here. (but you have to insert “classic.” before all of the resulting links) You may discuss this column here (but you have to insert “classic.” before all of the resulting links).

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TAGS:  comicspro, comics retailing, diamond comics

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