Tilting at Windmills

Fri, June 19th, 2009 at 2:58am PDT | Updated: June 19th, 2009 at 9:08am

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer
1

OH, SPACIOUS SKIES

What if you threw a promotion and nobody came?

One thing you really can say for Marvel is that, most of the time, they get it right – they nailed major pieces of the news cycle throughout "Civil War," both in the Spider-Man unmasking as well as Cap’s Death, and they did it again with the Obama issue of "Amazing Spider-Man." There’s not a marketing team in comics that has a better track record during the 21st century of creating stories with compelling hooks that the general, non-comics reading audience is able to get excited about.

Very little of that audience actually sticks, of course, and there’s a really big danger in event-driven marketing because once it stops working, if you don’t have the fundamentals of your greater line in a great shape, then you’re in a really dangerous place (cf, DC Comics, whose overall line is taking a pretty horrific beating at the moment, even while excitement for specific things like "Final Crisis" or "Blackest Night" are higher than ever), but these things cycle in and out and back and forth, and so it goes.

But Marvel didn’t get a hit this time (maybe a single on the bunt, but they were “promising” another home run), and maybe it will be instructive to “enter into the record” (since, hopefully, there will one day be a volume three in the "Tilting at Windmills" collection series. You can buy v2 direct from IDW right here) what went on in June 2009, and the publicity for "Reborn" #1. Well, or more properly at this time: "Captain America: Reborn" #1.

The first thing you need to remember is that retailers buy their comics non-returnable – unlike bookstores or newsstands, if we buy something we can not sell, we get stuck with it, and that’s our loss and our fault. Virtually all of the time, this simply isn’t an issue – once you’ve run a store for a year or two, you either have learned how to order correctly and with a great deal of prescience, or you, generally, go out of business. Further, we generally are receiving better discounts and more timely shipping, so it works out really well, most of the time.

(This is also the reason that the DM is, generally, far too conservative in its ordering practices, which is starting to have some ugly consequences, but that’s another column…)

Direct Market retailers generally understand when they over-order a book, that’s on them. It is part of the game we play, and we can’t blame the publisher as long as they delivered what they said they would: title x, by creators y & z, in format q at price w with general story of k. We’re taking our best guess based on that information, and if we guess wrong, well, that’s our own fault.

The important consideration there is the “delivered what they said they would” bit, and virtually every bit of retailer angst can be dropped on that – we want the bets we’re placing to be on a table with a fair and level playing field where we know what the rules of the Game are, and that they don’t change arbitrarily or capriciously.

One tool that Marvel has used in the last few years is the “information classified” solicitation – where they’re leaving out at least the “general story of k” portion (and sometimes the creators involved, but that’s rarer). In some cases, like the post-"Civil War" or "Secret Invasion" solicits, this made a reasonable amount of logical sense. The denouement of the story is critical, and preserving the surprise is a useful thing, in some circumstances. I totally get that as a reader, as a fan.

But as a retailer, I kinda don’t. In order to do my job most effectively, knowing that Cap was going to die in "Civil War" would have allowed me to ultimately have sold more comics – I would have had more copies in stock of the relevant pieces, I would have tailored display and presentation, and ultimately, I would have been better prepared for the storm to follow.

At the end of the day, the problem of course is the internet – information is now viral, and there isn’t any appreciable way to “lock away” certain bits. I mean, I’d love to have a retailer’s only version of "Previews," but we all know that within 30 seconds of it being released, someone would be on the net telling you everything in it.

I adore big general comics newsites like Comic Book Resources and Newsarama, but I also really really wish that they’d all stop running raw solicits as “news”. Hell, the “big two” newsites even run previews of the solicits at this point – “here’s some of the things in next month’s X-books, the full solicits will follow in a few days” and so on – and that’s just insane.

(No offense, Jonah)

Clearly, this is because you, the consumer, is demanding these things. And that’s good. No, it’s great; it shows just how passionate and committed to these stories you are, but I also think it is deeply unhealthy for you and that what you really want is actually features about those stories. It is, however, much easier to treat the solicitations as a “feature” unto itself, plus, y’know, it doesn’t actually cost anyone anything to do so. Bonus!

Anyway, like I said, I can sorta-kinda get behind “information classified” when it is related to the denouement of a story. It isn’t what I, personally, would do were I God, and I know this harms my ability to fully support these books in the manner in which they deserve, but I understand the reason: there are just enough people out there who can’t keep it in their pants that we effectively have to let everyone whip it out.

Which brings us to "Reborn" #1. (Hey, only a thousand words later!)

"Reborn" isn’t the denouement of a story – it is the beginning of one, and I think the difference between the two is significant. There isn’t anything to “spoil”, as anyone who has read comics for any length of time knew damn well that Steve Rogers would be back. There is, at its core, no surprise there.

Yet "Reborn" #1 had an “information classified” solicitation.

The reason, we were told, was that "'REBORN' #1’s solicit and cover will not be revealed before its FOC date due to upcoming mainstream press regarding the series. Please see the Marvel page of Diamond’s Retailer Service Area for more information"

In other words, the reason they were trying to “keep the secret” was because they wanted the story in the New York Daily News to break. That, in essence, they felt is was more important that the story run than it was that retailers have both the proper tools and knowledge to order this non-returnable book correctly.

Please note the original wording of this announcement – information about this book “will not be revealed before its FOC date” (emphasis mine). This is the core of the issue, originally Marvel was asking us to order this book purely blindly, with nothing but a creative team and a page count and price. Nothing else.

Now I know all of you armchair pundits are saying “Well, obviously it was the return of Steve Rogers all along.” And that’s nice that you’re a Monday Morning Quarterback, but in the circles I travel in, the majority of retailers didn’t think that this was obvious whatsoever. The thinking was essentially that it is such an obvious thing to do that it couldn’t be the actual news – after all, “Steve Rogers returns” isn’t really a news story at all. That’s like sending out a press release saying “This just in: Water is wet”. No, there had to be a swerve of some kind.

The oddsmakers were thinking that it was the return of the Isaiah Bradley character from the "Truth: Red, White and Black" storyline – “Captain America is back, and he’s black!” could be a serious news headline, especially with an African-American President in office. Others were thinking that perhaps it could be the “Heroes Reborn” Cap (based on the house ads featuring that world’s female Bucky), or blah blah blah; there were a number of possibilities.

There was also, I believe, every chance that it had to do with one of the other books Ed Brubaker is writing for Marvel – it could have been “Karen Page: Reborn”, tying into "Daredevil." Or maybe it could have been, say, “Miss America: Reborn”, tying into the launch of “The Marvels Project” mini-series. Or it could have been “Phoenix: Reborn” to tie in to his recent "X-Men" work. Or, hell, it could have been something very left field like, dunno, a Marvel Illustrated project of “Jesus: Reborn” (though they missed Easter, so that one, at least, was very unlikely)

My point is that it could have been anything, and that smart money wouldn’t be on something as prosaic as “Steve Rogers: Reborn” because, as noted, that isn’t really news.

More importantly, any of these theoretical projects, be it Cap-related or something-else-related would all have different sales levels. Well, for me, at least. I’ll accept the premise that there is some store out there somewhere where it doesn’t matter whatsoever what Bru and Hitch were doing, it would sell the same, but I’m certain that’s not true for the numeric majority of stores.

Content is king in any kind of entertainment project, and not letting retailers know the content on a non-returnable purchase is not ethical behavior.

Understand that I’m putting aside the question of whether or not these actions would increase sales for Marvel (And Marvel’s primary fiduciary responsibility is, in fact, to their shareholders, not their retail partners and stakeholders) – from that point-of-view, clearly this strategy is a winner: Whip up speculation and frenzy, get a bunch of stores thinking they should speculate wildly on their orders because there might be a huge surge of civilian interest akin to “Spider-Man and Obama”, or even just “Cap dies”. It isn’t like Marvel is directly concerned whether we can sell the book or not; they have our non-returnable orders in hand, the work is sold.

(And, let me underline, I don’t believe that the individuals that comprise Marvel Editorial or Marketing would purposefully desire retailers to have unsold stock on their hands – I think they’re all smarter and more compassionate than that; just that the corporate entity of “Marvel” is more concerned with its own finances than those of its partners)

It is just that it isn’t ethical to offer a non-returnable book with no indication of content whatsoever.

With this in mind, I announced to my customers (and on my blog) that unless we were given solicitation information before the FOC date (Final Order Cutoff, remember), I could not, in good conscience, carry any rack copies of this book. Obviously I’d fill all pre-orders, and reorder the book for whatever customers requested it, but I simply couldn’t spend my own discretionary money supporting the book.

Why? Because the things we do, the actions we take, directly impact what we allow our suppliers to do. If I rack copies of the book under those circumstances, I am sending a direct message to publishers that this is acceptable behavior, that I’m OK with ordering non-returnable books without proper information. Well, it isn’t acceptable behavior, and my purchasing power is the only tool I have to express this with.

Now, look, I’m not stupid, there’s no way my individual volume for this single comic is going to make or break this book. This was, at best, a protest vote. I did not believe that it would have any great impact, and I certainly wasn’t calling for an industry-wide boycott, or anything else similarly illegal (I’m on the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, so doing so would have certainly created at least the appearance of breaking Federal Anti-Trust laws), but I was raised to believe that there is a difference between right and wrong, and that difference is not very hard to discern. When confronted with an injustice, the ethical and responsible thing to do is to try and fight that injustice. To do otherwise, especially when it might have the side effect of enriching yourself is to condone that injustice, even if it is passively.

I mean, heh, I don’t think that’s what Steve Rogers woulda done, so I can’t do that myself, now can I?

Anyway, I took my stance, made it public, and the response from my customers was overwhelmingly positive (just as it was in the 90s for the year-or-so we didn’t rack nearly any Marvel comic in response to the Heroes World Distribution fiasco) – if I lost out on the money from "Reborn" #1, then so be it. It isn’t like I don’t have plenty of other comics to sell.

Thankfully, a few days later Marvel relented and announced that "Reborn" #1 would have an extended FOC. To wit:

“'REBORN' FOC MOVED TO TUESDAY 6/16 TO ALLOW MORE TIME FOR ORDERS!
'Reborn' #1 (MAY090412D, $3.99) is expected to receive nationwide mass media coverage on June 15, and in an effort to give retailers more time to adjust orders, the issue’s FOC date will be moved from Thursday, June 11 to Tuesday, June 16. The on sale date of July 1 is unaffected by the FOC adjustment.”

In other words, while we still had to wait for the news story to be released, at least we’d still be able to adjust our orders at that point. Therefore, I would be able to rack the book. See? That wasn’t so hard, was it?

I’m not (quite) arrogant enough to believe that my stance, in and of itself affected the behavior change from Marvel, but I would like to think that it helped somewhat.

Near the same time, Marvel announced that "Captain America" #600 would suddenly be available for early shipping. Normally comics are released on Wednesdays, but, for this book, they were offering a Monday release for those willing to pay for the shipping charges. Now shipping charges are what they are, and Marvel certainly doesn’t have any control over them, but, out here to the West Coast at least, that kind of shipping is usurious – it works out to something close to 40 cents a book, in this case, or about 8% of the cover price. That’s within the actual margin of profit for most stores, understand. And, of course, that doesn’t count any extra expenses in manpower and systems needed to handle an out-of-cycle release.

Here’s a place where I’m really torn – clearly Marvel was trying to capitalize on their placed news story, and trying to do so in a way that material was available in the retail channel at the moment the news broke. That’s a really good thing! The problem is that such a plan inherently favors the largest stores – in shipping, the first pound is the most expensive, and your marginal cost drops after that. While, yes, on any reasonable quantity of #600s, the cost-per-book is going to be about 8% of cover, if you’re a store that might sell another 10 or 20 copies of this title purely due to early release (that is to say, you’re selling it to your most eager regular comics consumers who can’t wait 48 hours, not to a rush of hypothetical [at this point] new civilian readers), it might cost you in the $10 range to get those 10 copies – or $1 a book. Which makes those copies break even at best, presuming you sell all of them. And if those copies would have sold anyway on Wednesday, well then, kiddo, you’re out a lot of expense for no reason. (other than “customer service”, natch – which can be a very good reason in some individual situations)

So, clearly, we have a situation in some individual markets where the largest stores are being given a potentially significant advantage because their through-weight on these books are high enough that the math works. Meanwhile, stores in those same markets that expect to sell fewer that the math-point run the risk of losing sales among their regular customers for not participating. That’s not especially fair, in my eyes.

At this point, the gamble might become “How much do you trust that this news will break big among the general public?” and here the deck is stacked – Marvel knows the content, we don’t, so it is a leap of faith. Were I Marvel, confident in the transformative power of this news, I would have eaten the shipping costs to get the book out to my retailers, and to ensure a level playing field. This is not what happened, of course.

There’s two further complications here, as well. The first is that Marvel announced the early shipping in an email late on a Wednesday. Wednesday is generally the most busy day for comics retailers, and not a lot of them have the time or energy to be obsessively checking email for something unexpected like this. Further, the deadline to let Diamond know was very early on Thursday. A lot of people simply missed the announcement until it was too late to do anything about it.

The second complication is that retailers asked Marvel for a case count of "Captain America" #600 to maximize shipping efficiency. Marvel replied, quite correctly, that case counts were 110 copies. That is to say, factory sealed cases. However, Diamond unfortunately decided to repack the books for shipping (again: a good decision: factory cases from the printer are not designed to stand up to the rigors of commercial shipping like UPS – they’re designed to travel on shrinkwrapped palettes from the printer to the distribution warehouse only) – but in that repacking, a “case” now became only 100 copies. Therefore a significant number of retailers ordered 110 copies, thinking they would receive one box, but instead got two boxes in the shipment. Remember the first pound in any box shipped is the most expensive. Hopefully these retailers will be properly reimbursed!

Possibly none of this would have mattered if the general public seized upon the return of Steve Rogers the way they did for his Death, or Spider-Man’s unmasking, or the team-up of Spider-Man and Obama – the demand and exposure and buzz could have outweighed the hassles and the costs. The potential, at least, was there.

But, of course, that really isn’t how it worked out. First off, it wasn’t a “slow news day” – the elections in Iran dominated the news cycle. While the story did spread to some degree, it didn’t do so in the kind of way that we were all clearly hoping it would.

More importantly, as I said above, this wasn’t really a news story. The American public is interested in death and in change, but they’re much less interested in things going back to the way they were. Clearly, Marvel should have known this – they have their own recent experience with Spider-Man: there was a huge press explosion of the unmasking, but the, well what to call it? Remasking? simply didn’t have the same level of impact outside of the existing audience.

Historically we can look at things like the "Death of Superman," and how "Superman" #75 was a massive massive deal among the civilians, but Superman’s Return in "Adventures of Superman" #500? Crickets chirping.

I know a lot of retailers that took a major bath on "Adventures of Superman" #500. Like being-able-to-build-furniture-out-of-the-number-of-cases-of-unsold-copies-they-had-leftover level of “major bath”. Any long time observer of public excitement and retail sales patterns could have told you instantly that, for the civilian audience, this would be a non-starter of a story.

I mean, if they had told what the story was, of course.

At the end of the day, all of this has caused some general level of retailer ill-will – whether it is from being “gamed”, to having to deal with extra expenses, to simply breaking the streak of success that Marvel has had for the last few years. And that’s not a healthy or positive place to be in for Marvel or retailers.

A lot of expense and hassle was generated, and for what? A news story that generated next-to-no civilian sales, and something that still “spoils” the story. Just here 3 weeks out instead of 8.

In this much I can only speak for myself: had I known what the deal was here at the time of the initial solicitation, I could have generated more buzz and interest for what will likely be an excellent story (It’s Brubaker after all) in my store. We’d have higher preorders, we’d have less expense and hassle, and people would be talking about the content, rather than the marketing.

My message is this: don’t hide basic data from retailers, don’t game the system, and don’t announce last second, and changing details. That’s not how we build a healthier more robust Direct Market.

The shame is, no matter how well "Cap" #600 and "Reborn" perform among the current audience (and it will likely be very well), all of this is going to be viewed as a failure by the retail community because it didn’t deliver the civilian readership that was promised, and that we were inconvenienced for the pursuit of. And they, really, should have known better that it wouldn’t – that’s what history shows.

That’s no way to run a railroad.

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:  tilting at windmills, captain america #600, steve rogers, marvel comics

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