Tilting at Windmills

Thu, July 15th, 2010 at 11:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

BROTHERS IN ARMS

I just flew back from Burbank and, man, are my arms...ugh, wait, that's too hoary of a joke even for me.

No, but I did just fly back from Burbank, from a meeting with DC Comics with a number of major retailers, to discuss, face-to-face, their results and plans for Digital Distribution.

(And, yes, Heidi, I'm talking about digital again – maybe this will be the last month in a row?)

DC's upper management team (Jim Lee and Dan Didio, Bob Wayne, Steve Rottendam, Vince Letterio, Hank Kanalz, John Rood and Diane Nelson) invited twenty retailers to the Warner's offices in Burbank – the retailers were a good mix of single stores and chains, rural and urban, providing a fairly reasonable cross-section of stores and sensibilities. This was a fairly last-minute meeting, arranged with just about two weeks notice. DC paid all of our traveling expenses, as well as meals and lodging.

I arrived on Friday morning (being that San Francisco to Burbank is a short hop at an under-hour flight), while virtually all of my peers came in on Thursday evening. The entirety of the ComicsPRO Board of Directors was invited, as well as another thirteen major retailers – though, as it turned out, a full 75% of invitees were ComicsPRO members, something I don't believe DC was aware of until we were all face-to-face.

I stroll into the hotel about an hour before the meeting start time and wander over to the restaurant to see who is sitting down for breakfast, and the very first people I see are...Marvel's Joe Quesada and Dan Buckley?!? Turns out they were in LA for a completely unrelated set of meetings, and they just happened to be staying in the same hotel. Comics can be an insanely small world!

We moved over to Warner's offices and into a conference room.

DC's digital efforts have only been running for two weeks now, so there was really a lack of certain specifics, simply because the program was so new that any numbers or figures they might reveal could only be the narrowest possible results. Among the things that were discussed was that the free DC app on the Apple store – the icon on the screen that allowed you to access the DC content – had been downloaded roughly 300,000 times. It was unclear if this meant 300k unique people, or 300k devices (in theory one person could download the app to every single device they might own; and crashing problems on the first day of the app's release could mean that some percentage of those were downloaded multiple times), but this seems like a pretty good number of downloads in the absolute infancy of their program, to this observer.

DC declined to give us any hard numbers of which bits of content were bought or downloaded how many times, but we were told a few tidbits: "Digital is not currently a game changer" in terms of day-and-date releases. The ratio of downloaded content was roughly 6:1 in favor of free previews (e.g.: the 10-page previews of J. Michael Straczynski's "Superman" and "Wonder Woman" runs) over paid content. There was a detectable number of downloads of "Sandman" #1 just after Neil Gaiman tweeted about its release to digital. None of that seems particularly surprising to me, and would be roughly in line with what my own expectations might be.

The sense I walked away with largely matches what I've been saying for months – while digital can eventually become a pretty reasonable revenue stream, especially for things that DC doesn't/can't monetize in a print market (like, say, out-of-print works that don't likely have enough velocity to put back into print, or video game/TV tie-ins where there's a much larger potential casual audience than any print program is likely to reach), for DC's core business, for making fans of non-fans, for making "super-fans" of fans, digital's best potential really is in driving people to print and to brick-and-mortar stores. That is to say, digital functions largely as the New newsstand.

(Having said that, that's a pretty broad assertion to make on an entire two weeks of this program happening, and extrapolating five years, ten years from a two week launch window is probably an inherently stupid thing to do. Plus, the biases of an observer can't help but color the observations recorded!)

DC shared their next ten weeks or so of planned releases on to both the Apple store as well as the PSP (they're fairly different lists), and I'd call it fairly aggressive in terms of number of titles being rolled out – it probably won't serve the current print readers who want to insist that DC has everything released digital right now, but it is a solid list of items each and every week; however, over this time period it appears that the day-and-date experiment is going to stay limited to those D&D titles they're already working with. While they declined to be specific about the actual results on the D&D experiment (other than the "not currently a game changer" statement), the book they indicated that was currently their best-selling paid content was not a D&D book. We didn't drill down far enough into the topic to see if they were talking units or dollars, however.

(I have a number of more specific notes on things they said, or things that we were able to infer from what they did and didn't say, but I don't think that I want to go much more into detail than this – while we're not under any kind of a formal Non-Disclosure Agreement on any of this, there's a certain amount of politeness and decorum that I feel should be observed when they "open their doors" in this fashion)

There was a great deal of discussion about ways that Warner Bros. Digital Distribution (that is: outside of "just" the "DC Comics" segment of their business) feels they can drive people into stores: some practical, some, in my mind, not so much, but it was encouraging to me, at least, that DC was framing all discussion in this way – they're not looking to cut out or replace current methods of selling print comics, as far as I can tell, and they view digital as complementary to those efforts (and let me underline that the Direct Market comic book store business is just one facet of their print strategy)

My read of my fellow retailer's largest concerns came primarily from certain mechanical aspects – for example, that the current implementation of the "buy in print" tools is pretty dramatically flawed, sometimes/often pointing consumers to locations that are not open, or that aren't the current location of stores, or even directing them towards what might be buying clubs rather than actual retail businesses. The very last thing you want to do for a potential new customer is to get them to drive to an address and find that it is just some guy's apartment, y'know? Part of the problem is that, due to the nature of the contracts that DC has with Diamond, DC is not able to directly provide a list of their retail customers, so they have to be culled by third parties from sources of information that are out-of-date or dramatically incomplete. This is a fairly major problem, and while a few possible ways to fix it were floated, one does not get the sense that this will be fixed today, this quarter, or, perhaps, even this year.

Having said that, there were a number of fairly solid ideas bounced around on how to drive digital sampling into print readers – more than a few were clunky, kludgy and impractical, but there's a solid kernel of things that could potentially move the needle as we continue to move forward into the New Order.

For myself, one of the best times of the day was the 20-minute or so private conversation I had with Diane Nelson and Bob Wayne during the "happy hour" post-meeting. Largely, my concern is that a vast multi-national corporation like Warner Bros. naturally gravitates towards dealing with other vast national corporations; yet the fundamental nature of the comics business is that we're largely single-store mom-and-pop organizations and small regional chains. Certain solutions aren't going to scale in the way that a Big Corp are going to want them to, and that a great amount of, well, let me call it "re-education" of the Big Corp's natural inclinations are going to have to happen to both preserve the amazing passion and strengths of the small guys, as well as transform the way that we do business to match some of their desires. This was driven home to me in the meeting with the very nice lady (Stephanie Bohn) from Warner Bros. Digital Distribution who came in to speak with us for about an hour – this same concern was brought up with her, but her "counter-examples" immediately turned to "Best Buy".

Here's the thing: outside of a small wedge of "no brainer" kind of projects (e.g. Jim Lee drawing Batman for a year) virtually every other mid-to-long success that virtually any comics publisher has had in the last two decades has come from bottom-up with the "tastemaker" stores driving the buzz and initial success before the large chains get on board. That is to say that the remarkable numbers of, say, Sandman trades that DC has managed to sell is a result of stores just like mine adopting and promoting those titles – the chains do not want these products until after they've been "proven" in stores like mine.

In looking at the recent history of other media's retail, it seems pretty clear to me that the rush to chain media in home video and (especially!) music, primarily served to completely undercut the small "tastemaker" stores, and drive them out of business. While "mass market" stores can sell a whole lot of units of things that they understand, they are very (very!) seldom innovators or anything much more than trend-followers. That is not especially healthy or useful to content generators – "sure things" (like the example of Jim on Batman) are truly few and far between, and that making "maybes" into the "Next Big Thing" takes a wide and diverse retail body. Especially because there's no real sign that the explosion of IP is going to do anything but accelerate and widen in our culture – you need something to help you stand out, and as I see it, that means a healthy and diverse range of independent thinkers and businesses.

To Diane's credit, she didn't whitewash the challenges on WBs side to recognize this, nor did she try to blow any smoke my direction by making impossible-to-keep promises, and, more than anything else during this conference, this filled me with a certain amount of hope for the future of my passion and business.

One thing that DC has committed to is to take a portion of the revenues they'll make from digital and to put it back into the retail environment to try and both keep customers in the print space, as well as drive new customers in our direction. Sadly, the meeting ended before we were able to have any real substantive conversation about the exact methods and mechanisms that this would take (we're going to need several follow-up meetings, I feel), but the fact that they're already considering this and that they're actively seeking ideas on how to make this work puts DC, I think, several steps ahead of their competitors. They aren't just talking, they're trying very hard to do, and that's absolutely essential if we don't want to end up like the music business.

I'm not naive – clearly one of the reasons DC had this conference was to get guys like me on "their side" on this, but I'd like to believe that I have a fairly high sensitivity to Corporate Bullshit, and I walked away thinking that to the extent that a Multi-National Corporation can do the right thing, DC is at least trending in the correct direction on this one.

We have a possibility of actually making this work in a way that isn't catastrophic towards the existing market, and, I'm hopeful, to actually grow that market. This could change tomorrow, next month, next year, next decade, but for the moment at least, I'm cautiously optimistic.

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, digital comics, dc comics, ipad, psp

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