Tilting at Windmills

Thu, October 14th, 2010 at 11:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer
21

MORE THAN PRICING

As a first step in the right direction, I'm pretty pleased that DC is dropping the $3.99 price point for ongoing titles. As we've spent several of the last few columns discussing, $3.99 for a "standard," "mainstream" comic book is a truly unsustainable price point in today's economy. Rolling back books to $2.99 is a positive step, in this retailer's view.

Marvel, too, is – but it isn't immediately clear if this is a proper roll-back, or if it is simply not launching ongoing $2.99 titles with a $3.99 price point for issue #1.

It is fairly clear to me, sitting behind the sales counter day-by-day, that the prices of periodical comics are causing people to be more selective with their purchasing decisions, as well as helping them cut back in the current titles they collect. It's also fairly clear to me that we have a business model that is dominated by the weekly release cycle, and is predicated on regular weekly customers coming in weekly to buy their comics. Anything that breaks that cycle (or even delays it, with once-weekly customers coming in bi-weekly-or-less-frequently) is a really really bad move. Pricing begins to address this.

There is one major concern that needs to be voiced, however – these roll-backs are happening in January, generally considered the worst month in retail (I tend to think February is a bit worse, but that's neither here nor there). When you couple the loss of revenue from the price decreases to the relatively weak quality and excitement level for books shipping in the fourth quarter of 2010, first quarter of 2011 is likely to be an extremely ugly one for many stores, and is likely to see a larger than normal number of stores having a hard time paying their bills, and, possibly, going out of business altogether. Sometimes hard decisions are like band-aids on little children – ripping it off fast will cause fewer pains than slowly peeling it back, and I have no doubt that this is a decision that absolutely had to be made, but I do rather wish they had made it in third quarter of 2010, rather than as we open 2011.

Still and all, pricing is just one leg of the tripod – the other two legs need to be addressed just as aggressively, and that's content and production. Content needs to be compelling, needs to be self-reinforcing, needs to have you walking away from thinking, "Man, I sure want more of that!" Now, I'm a retailer, and while I'm also an occasional "critic," that's not really my bailiwick, so I can't offer any more valid or specific advice on content other than "make it better!," which probably isn't all that helpful? I'm sure that DC would be quite happy to publish 10 books with the power and craft of a "Watchmen" or "Dark Knight" every month, if they knew how to do it, but there's an alchemy to craft that is well outside of the scope of this column.

But production? I can talk about that, because it has an enormous bearing on my day-to-day working.

At the simplest, most root core of it, the contract between publisher and audience is a promise: I am offering you this good, it will have this content by that creative team and we're going to ship it to you on this date. For retailers, those promises are incredibly important, because we're buying those goods non-returnable, and we're making decisions based upon those promises.

One recent example is that of Kendell Swafford at Up Up and Away in Cincinatti. A few weeks ago, Kendell wrote an incendiary article at ICv2 talking about Superman #703, where Superman was meant to be visiting Cincinatti as part of his "walk across America" storyline. Kendell took the promotional bull by the horns, and worked with his local municipality to incorporate the release of the comic to a major parade the city holds – he hired an actor to portray Superman, even got the mayor to declare the original date of release as "Superman Day." Major promotion, major coup, right?

Except the comic shipped a month late.

And, doesn't really take place in Cincinatti after all.

Looking at the site for Up Up and Away, they're still going forward with the promotion (I hope they had a great Wednesday!), so good for them, they're still trying. And while I think that, perhaps, Kendell went a step or two too far in publicly calling for specific firings, the point remains that Kendell is absolutely right about the inadequate way that DC handled this – a flagship book like Superman shouldn't ever be late. Ever. Retailers depend on having twelve salable issues of Superman (or any other core monthly periodical title, for that matter) a year, shipping on their original shipdate. Anything less than 100% compliance on that means the publisher isn't doing their single most important job.

Moreover, to have the late shipping happen in the fourth month of a hard-pushed "bold new direction," is incredibly disturbing. The editor's primary job, I believe, is to Keep The Trains Running On Time. Obviously, that's not to say they should put out sub-standard books, but the revenue on the core monthly books is, in fact, the economic engine that drives the whole rest of the train for all segments of the industry.

Maybe it makes me sound old, but I still vividly remember when comics had a scheduled ship week – Batman, or whatever, was in the second week of the month – and the overwhelming majority of books hit that date, week after week, year after year. That adherence to the shipping schedule, that dependable and predictable cash flow, helped make it even possible that stores that specialized in comics, and comics only, could be created and thrive.

But today? Schedules don't seem to mean spit to the publishers or the creators – things arrive randomly and inconsistently, families of titles clump together, then go weeks without having a single installment released. This has a dire impact on consumer (and retailer!) confidence, and is one of the key factors impacting today's (limp) periodical sales.

Let's look at an amazingly egregious example of what I'm talking about, and how these things have cascade impacts: the storyline of "The Return of Bruce Wayne"

Summarizing, Bruce Wayne was thought dead in the DC Universe for the last year or two, but he was actually "trapped in time," or something. But we all knew he'd be back, and back he is coming. First, in a six issue series by Grant Morrison, literally titled "Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne." This was meant to lead into a one shot called "Batman The Return," that was meant to be followed by eight individual one-shots known as "Bruce Wayne: The Road Home: [subtitle]" with focuses on Red Robin, Batgirl, Oracle and so on. Finally, these would culminate in the launch of two new regular high-profile ongoing monthlies: Batman, Inc. and Batman: The Dark Knight. Got all that? (It really isn't all that confusing, until you try to explain it out loud!)

So what actually happened?

Well, "Return of Bruce Wayne" is late, with issue #5 shipping eleven weeks after issue #4 (issues #1 & 2, oddly, were bi-weekly), which means that the "Road Home" stories have Bruce actually returning before he's returned in the comics that have the word "return" in the title. Ugh.

I have to note, retailers asked (on the intra-industry message board, the CBIA) whether Bruce Wayne was actually in any of these comics or not (that would make a pretty significant difference in orders for this retailer, at least!), and no clear answer was received. It turns out he narrates them and is the central figure in each one. Ugh.

Further, for reasons unknown to me, rather than shipping the scheduled 2-per-week the "Road Home" books were solicited as, DC made the decision to ship the first four in a single week. Ugh.

Then, instead of being "one shots," as their solicitation text describes, the final product turns out to effectively be an eight-issue miniseries, with each one-shot being released with "to be continued in…" the next "one shot." Naturally, someone messes up the production and at least one of the books "points" to the wrong "next" title. And let's not forget to mention that the eight covers link up to form a single image – but that that image is neither the order of release, nor of reading order. Plus, and I'm just saying here, at the time of solicitation these book's covers were redacted with a "Top Secret!" banner, but once the cover was revealed, there wasn't anything even remotely "spoilery" about any of them – my guess? Simply that the covers hadn't been drawn yet by the deadline for the catalog! Ugh. Ugh! UGH!

I'm sure it is theoretically more possible to muff a big event worse than this (Marvel came really really close with Captain America: Reborn and Siege), and I guess they still have a few more weeks to get something else wrong, but this is really an epic fustercluck that I literally and completely do not understand how a publisher like DC (or Marvel!!) allows things like this to happen without radically re-evaluating the manner in which they produce periodical comics. Things like that should never happen, barring catastrophic Acts of God.

The "Return of Bruce Wayne" problem isn't anything particularly new, though the scope of the errors is fairly novel, but nearly every week we get some sort of minor recreation of it – three "Avengers" titles shipping one week, none the next, two "Green Lantern" books shipping in a single week, when the "line" only has three titles in it, and so on.

It's tiring. Deeply, bone-wearingly tiring. It makes it difficult to be enthusiastic on the retail floor, and enthusiasm is something that is deeply necessary on the sales floor.

As a retailer, I can control my environment with how I rack, and what I order, and where I put my enthusiasm and promotional efforts, but I can't control what the publishers release each week, or the strength of that content – only the publishers can.

And, unless, and until they're able to fix these root problems at the very core of their business, any change in pricing or format isn't going to have the impact we all need it to have.

The good news is that these problems seem like they should be fixable, and, fairly rapidly at that. But it has to come from the publishing side; the retail community can't do it themselves.

Here's hoping…

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)

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