Tilting at Windmills

Wed, March 31st, 2010 at 2:00pm PDT

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

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First off, a few housekeeping notes: normally this column goes up the Friday closest to the 15th, each month (did you never notice that?), but this one is, if I handled my schedule correctly, a whole lot earlier than that - "time sensitive" and all. We'll go back to the normal schedule next column… which means about six weeks from now.

Second: I'm nearly blind from lack of sleep right now - in the last five days, where I was either travelling to/from or at the annual ComicsPRO meeting, I've had about eight hours of sleep. I finally managed another 12 hours last night, once I got home, but I'm still not entirely sure that I'm speaking English at the moment, and that things might be coming out in some sort of "dur, duh, dur" of a sleep zombie.

Third: While I am, in fact, one of the founders of ComicsPRO, and on the Board of Directors for the organization, I speak here 100% fully as an individual person, and nothing I say or do should be, in any way, construed as the official opinion of ComicsPRO, its officers, its membership, nor, for that matter, as anyone whose initials aren't "B.H." that wasn't born in June, lives in San Francisco and is married to an Israeli, with a six year old son. That should disclude anyone but me, in the entire world.

I say that because I will be frank on at least one or two topics, and I expect that at least one person will take this personally, and, while that is, of course, any individual's right, direct your blowback to me because that is where it is coming from. (Yeah, I know, "Good luck with that, Hibbs!")

And so we begin:

WHAT AN AMAZING MEETING!

I mean, holy cow, this was exactly what I hoped the organization would be able to do and produce from the moment it was formed. No, let me go even farther, this was maybe what I hoped the comics industry could be and do from the very first one of these "Tilting at Windmills" columns first appeared two decades ago.

Dismiss that as hyperbole, or the ravings of a sleep-deprived mind, and, naturally, things will invariably creep back to the entropy of business-as-usual, because that's what things do, but as I flew into Memphis for the annual ComicsPRO meeting, I was as depressed about the state of my industry as I have ever been in 21 years of owning a store. I had finally succumbed to the "maybe there won't be a comics industry five years from now" dread that has burbled in the background of the DM for at least as long as I've been in it (and probably much longer) - particularly with the looming threat of digital.

Coming home from Memphis I was thinking "We're Ground Zero of Pop Culture, we're the idea tank of the mass media, and none of these things will mean a thing without the Direct Market right at its core."

I think that this was the kind of meeting of the minds where, two, three, five years from now we're going to look back and say "that had its roots in Memphis."

Maybe the best thing is to circle back around to this by talking about other retailer gatherings. These are generally "trade show" style best currently exemplified by the Diamond Comics Summits, though they have history that goes further back to the history of ComicCon and before. Basically, on the vendor-side, the trade show is to sell the retailer something. Sometimes that's not even specific products, just more of a "pay attention to us, will you?" On the retailer side, the trade show is to fix their problems. Not the greater problems, I mean, but to fix their problems. To the point where you'll often get attending retailers spending 10 minutes of every retailer's time in the open Q&A sessions talking about how some specific individual title got damaged in transit to their specific individual store, and gosh why can't you fix that for me right this very second?

Look: it isn't that this retailer's concern isn't a valid one (it is!), but that's not how you should spend the group's time, you feel me?

Because the vendors at a trade show are trying to get us to buy things (and like I said, even the very notion that they're valuable to an individual store), the easiest path for them to take is to give us free stuff, in order to try and bribe us. That, too, is not an indictment - I understand the impulse and see why it evolved that way. But, because there isn't a "minimum standard" of professionalism in a trade show environment, you then start attracting people who have Diamond accounts who maybe aren't actually even retailers attending for the free stuff. Sometimes that's buying clubs with a Diamond account, or sometimes it is store owners just letting their customers attend in their stead, or sometimes they are "legitimate" accounts who are solely concerned about profits (nothing wrong with that! It is business!) and being able to flip the trade-show freebies for Big Bux.

Whatever the reason, it lends a carnival atmosphere to the trade show, and there's very little time or energy or thought that can be put into our greater problems and directions, as an industry. Sure, if you as an individual go into a trade show with an agenda, you can achieve some of it, between the barkers and the rubes, because it is really the only way to get reps from everywhere in a single room, but trade shows are truly inherently inefficient things. If I never go to another one in my entire life, I doubt I would be sad.

What we had in Memphis, at ComicsPRO, was a meeting, a dialogue. We worked on industry problems, not just our individual ones, we talked about high-level issues, about how to make our entire industry a better place for everyone, and we got direct affirmation from every single attending sponsor that they believe that our market has been, is, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future, their single most important one.

I wish I could be directly specific about What Got Done, but the tangible stuff (I think I suggested a deal that, when completed, will mean a million dollars for the DM) isn't ours to broadcast - it is the vendor's; and the intangible stuff, like "here are ways we can leverage digital to drive physical sales" are all going to be works in progress when we see what happens when the rubber meets the road. But people are on the same page(s), and I think many amazing long-term things are going to come out of this meeting.

The positive, dialogue-driven agenda and tone of the meeting was strongly set by DC Comics. The first day of the meeting was given as "DC Day" - they paid a pretty large sum of money to have the day all to themselves. This is the second time they've done so, and DC also provided a little seed money to get ComicsPRO started in the first place. The cynics among you might think that this was a way of buying influence and respect, but, honestly, comic book retailers are far more cynical than you could ever be, and there's certainly no evidence within the sales charts that retailers directly reward DC for sponsoring ComicsPRO - indeed, it is the quality and saleability of work that dictates orders.

If you ask me, DC isn't looking for "pay for play", but, rather that they understand that a well supported retail base pays long-term dividends, and makes them a better publisher in the long run. DC has a history of working with retailers - there were over ten "RRP" meetings where they flew us around the country and put us up on their dimes, and, if anything, supporting ComicsPRO in this way accomplishes the same goals, but for an investment of, perhaps, one third of the cost of managing a "RRP".

Regardless of their motivation, DC made a strong showing at the ComicsPRO meeting, sending an even dozen of their team to the meeting to talk about the future - including nine people at a VP or higher level. But the key to this year, and what set the tone for everything that followed is they didn't come to talk to us, they came to talk with us.

There was a level of candor that I have never seen before - even from their own "RRP" events - everything was on the table: we discussed line sizes, potential options for pricing, promotion, digital… you name it, it was discussed.

Normally, such discussions tend to be "Here's what we're doing, is there something we should change?"; but this year was "Here are 3 or 4 various things we're considering doing, which of these works best for you?" That may sound like a subtle difference, but actually it is a huge huge thing - there was a sense that we were legitimate partners in where we're going to be in three or five or ten years, instead of trying to simply deflect the next six months of planning. Even better was that as each topic was proposed and disposed there were "sense of the room" hand votes. That was a powerful feeling among the retailers in attendance.

If there is one place that I think my fellow retailers failed, it was that we somewhat treated DC as if they were the "old girlfriend". By this I mean that eleven of the twelve DC attendees were "known" to us, and we, perhaps, treated some of them as though they were still in their old positions, rather than their new ones. For example, I saw a large handful of retailers try and talk to Jim Lee about possibly doing a store signing with them, rather than engaging him as co-publisher. To be fair to my brethren, we have twenty-ish years of thinking of Jim as Creator-first, and DC's new structure was only roughly five weeks old at this point, so it isn't necessarily the easiest mental shift for us to make so rapidly, but I think we'll get there by this time next year.

I also want to single out Dan Didio as someone that I've, personally, taken a few easy shots at over the years; but none of my reductive comments were in evidence this weekend - he seemed honestly engaged in being willing to be open to any new ideas for the direction of DC in the future, and virtually all of my concerns were, if not wholly assuaged, dramatically reduced.

DC helped us set the tone for the rest of the meeting, and when we moved to the second day, where any publisher or distributor representative was allowed to participate, I think there was a much higher level of communication than would have occurred otherwise.

There were a lot of publishers in attendance this year - nearly 50% more than last year, from the majority of the "Premiere" publishers, down to organizations as "small" as Archaia Press, and, to a man, they approached the meeting openly with a level of candor that I haven't seen in my entire history of attending retailer events.

Due to the economy we reduced the meeting down to two days this year, but the astonishing level of publisher support I think showed us that we need to go back to three days next time, so that we can give more voices more time to communicate. Further, next year I hope we're able to expand the number of attending publishers by another 50% - there were a large number of publishers that wanted to attend but we effectively contacted them too late to fit into their schedules for the year. This will change next year.

But what I really want to underline here that everyone who attended, publisher or retailer was firmly fixed on Moving Us Forward, and the raw generation of ideas and plans was nothing short of breath-taking. Conversations were free-wheeling, but always focused on Getting Stuff Done, and there was an astonishing level of high-powered, high-level thinking and planning. Comics will be better from what we did this weekend!

Another beautiful thing about the gathering was the level of retailer-to-retailer communication. I'd be stunned if every retailer attendee didn't come home without half a dozen ideas about how to make their individual stores better and stronger places. There was very little ego and hubris on display, and even the largest multi-store operator, I think, learned new things from their compatriots that they could directly apply to make their businesses better and stronger places. We even had a few attendees who haven't yet opened their stores yet - I marvel at the incredible level of support that these members are going to have at day number one when they finally open - talk about getting the best possible leg up!

I have, really, only one negative thing to report about the meeting, and that is that Marvel comics didn't send any representatives whatsoever. Not even an unpaid intern to sit in a corner and take notes. This is where I reiterate I speak only for myself, but I think it is a direct and deep insult to working retailers that the single largest publisher can't be bothered to participate in the single most productive weekend of the year. The height of the folly, to me, is that this year's first annual ComicsPRO Industry Appreciation Award in the posthumous category was given to Marvel's Carol Kalish, and the award ended up getting accepted by former DC publisher Paul Levitz.

Once upon a time Marvel, under Carol's DM sales team, was the most DM-friendly publisher. The cash register program, rack credits via the IADD, effective and scrupulous solicitations, these were all things that happened under Carol's watch. In fact, I'll still always remember being 16 years old, working at another person's store, and Carol was in town for a vacation, and she took the time to come in and make a half-dozen practical and direct suggestions as to how that store could be made better; not specifically for Marvel, but just a better store in general. That was a powerful memory for me, and the lessons that Carol taught us have stuck with me all of these years later. I thought, "that's how I want to be when I grow up", and I am, frankly, personally embarrassed that current Marvel management isn't willing to live up to her legacy, and engage the people who sell their comics for them, and represent them to the buying public.

I want to thank our membership for the level of professionalism and passion that they brought to our meeting, as well as to all of our partners who have stepped up to help our membership make comics a better place; these efforts are going to pay rich dividends for all of us for decades to come. Comics and the Direct Market aren't going anywhere, and much of that will be because of the efforts of the people in the room this weekend.

I also want to thank Robert Kirkman for his hysterical keynote address - and I mean that in a good way. Sometimes keynote kinds of things suck all of the air out of the room, and Kirkman made us all laugh and set a great tone for the second day.

And I want to especially thank Amanda Emmert, ComicsPRO's Communication Coordinator, for her tireless efforts to make the meeting a smooth experience for everyone who attended - she did an astonishing job, and the organization wouldn't exist without her amazing efforts.

And so we come to you. We did great this year, but next year can (and will!) be even better! We want and need more participating retailers, because the future belongs to all of us, and your voice is absolutely essential in this process. Like I said at the top of this, I think two years from now people are going to be talking about how all of these amazing things had their start in Memphis in 2010, and this is absolutely the time to join the organization so that you, too, can be part of this future and communication. I think a reasonable goal would be to double membership in the next year, and I would call on all retailers reading this to join ComicsPRO right now. There's an incredible package of tangible benefits and discounts that will more than pay for your membership costs, and the intangible value of having your voice be heard as we build a bridge to a better future for all of us in incalculable. comicspro.org, join today!

I'm more positive about the future of our business than ever before, and we all need your voice and support to make that future even brighter.

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)

TAGS:  tilting at windmills, comicspro

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