Tilting at Windmills: DC Comics, comiXology & Comic Stores

Thu, August 25th, 2011 at 11:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer

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(Author's note: I'd like to believe that, after the better part of two decades writing an opinion column about comics retailing that everyone in the world would understand that the following is just my opinion. But, just in case: this is not intended as, nor should be extrapolated to be, anything other than my own individual opinion, and it most certainly should not be even slightly construed to represent any opinion of, or formed in association with, any other person in the entire world, including bits that maybe we haven't even discovered yet. This includes, but certainly is not limited to, Comic Book Resources or ComicsPRO, or, hell, let's throw it in for good measure, my son's school's PTA. Thank you for understanding that at all times!)

My relationship with DC Comics fundamentally changed today.

I didn't realize it was going to happen. I wasn't looking for it to happen. I certainly didn't expect, or frankly want it to happen. In fact, I'm not even really certain that DC wanted it to happen. But change it just did.

See, today (last week, by the time you read these words) comiXology just released their Terms of Use for what they call a "Digital Storefront" in which, and I repeat verbatim from their marketing, retailers can "Let your customers purchase from the largest digital comics selection through your storefront. Customers can buy and read directly on your website. Compatible with the Comics by comiXology platform, readers can enjoy their choice of digital comics on mobile devices and online through your store."

That really doesn't sound so bad, does it?

What does that have to do with DC, though?

DC, as you're certainly aware by now, has announced a major change to their publishing plan -- "The New 52" -- where they are restarting their entire line from #1. Despite hard promises made by DC many months ago that there would continue to be a respectful delay between print and digital release, DC took a hard right turn, and announced that "The New 52" would instead be accompanied by "day and date" release of the digital comics.

That's certainly their right, and I think that I understand why they made that decision, but it absolutely represents a clear "going back on" promises that were made to retailers. Still, that doesn't represent the fundamental change in the relationship!

When DC went around on their nationwide tour and their detailed FAQ about these changes, they assured retailers that they wanted to keep us in the loop. In fact, they were directing comiXology to set up special DC storefronts for retailers which would give us a thirty percent cut of whatever sales we promoted through them. This, again, sounded reasonable and somewhat forward thinking, but, as always, the devil is in the details.

The thing to take from this, as I understand it at least, is that comiXology would not be doing these stores (at least at this exact time, in this fashion) were it not for DC's insistence upon it. Therefore, in a very real way, this is perceived as a DC move.

DC's FAQ was very vague on the exact details: For instance, using language about "affiliate programs" at one point, but then also talking about "dedicated store fronts." We were promised more hard information on or before July 20th. Almost an entire additional month passed, however, and details were finally released on August 17th for an August 31st launch. Yes, just fourteen days warning, if you want to be part of the launch of this program -- not only to mechanically make it happen, but to read through and parse the (heavy) details.

Here's what you really need to understand to get my core rage and frustration about how this is unfolding: Direct Market comic book retailers are DC's customers. Even though Diamond is the one who facilitates the pulling and packing of books, I do not buy DC comics from Diamond -- Diamond is "merely" the sales agent in the transaction. I am the customer, I am the retailer.

I had, perhaps foolishly, assumed that this essential relationship would largely be continued, and that the "mechanism" of I-am-the-retailer, DC-is-the-publisher, let's-all-make-some-money with an agent or broker doing the facilitating would continue, swapping Diamond's role for comiXology.

Oh, no.

Nonononononononono.

The deal with comiXology is a complete inversion of how the business currently works. comixOlogy is the retailer, and the DM retailers are just -- hmm, what's the best analogy? An introduction service, I guess is the one? Only, matchmakers and headhunters? They often make hundreds of dollars per client. We're being offered 15 cents, on the low-end.

I'm saddened by this.

Look, I'm not precisely a fool (even if I do foolish things once in a while!), and I recognize that at the end of a day you can't trust corporations. You can trust individual people who work for corporations, and you can trust those people to have something reasonably close to your interests in mind when they make policies. But I'm just saddened that we've come so quickly to this: pretty much the opposite of anything that was ever discussed, and the polar opposite of any relationship that DC has ever had with Direct Market retailers. And presented in a fashion meant to convince us this is actually good for us.

Here's the thing: I'm not opposed to digital, but I have to know, for example, that if I, as a retailer, build a digital relationship with a consumer, that no one, be it the digital provider, or the publisher itself is going to be allowed to do an end-run around that relationship, and market directly to them. Otherwise, that's pretty much a non-starter from the word "go." In a recent comiXology FAQ, they assure us "We do not currently have any plans to market the comiXology storefront to any customers of branded storefronts." Which, of course, has all of the legally binding weight of any statement of intention!

Understand that this was essentially what the Borders bookstore chain decided to do -- to let Amazon handle their online fulfillment. But, once you've handed the customer off to a different business entity, what possible reason (other than the nebulous "loyalty" for which all are forever grateful!) does the customer have to go through your portal, in order to get to the end-seller?

It isn't easy to be a retailer. I don't mean that in some sort of "poor, woe is me" kind of a way, but in the sense that doing the job well -- that is, having the right comics on hand, of matching a reader's taste to a specific book, or being able to answer a hundred different questions about tone and content and form and style, and have it lead to a sale that the customer is truly happy about, none of that is simple stuff, easily done. That is one of the reasons that there really aren't all that many great comic book stores out there -- if it was easy, and anyone could do it, then we'd be tripping over them.

We keep seeing attempts to bring back the mass audience to serialized periodical comics, whether it is efforts aimed at what's left of the "actual" newsstand market (7-11's have probably replaced the "general store" in most locales), or whether it's pushes to get material into generalist book stores like Barnes & Noble or Hastings, and none of these experiments seem to garner anything but the mildest of responses. Some of that is that the last time comics did well on the newsstand, the average issue was extremely new reader friendly, and also generally a self-contained reading experience, which is hardly the case for most comics today; and some of that is that comics, especially with the bulk of books today being multi-issue story arcs, have lost a great measure of the perception of value-for-the-buck. But the reality of things really is that if you don't already know comics, comics are crazy confusing, and a guide, a Sherpa, the retailer is really very valuable. Perhaps essential.

But, here's my point: the "new newsstand" doesn't really seem to work for drawing in new customers, and though I wouldn't be surprised if we've tripled or better the number of eyes being exposed to comics just by being in those large generalist book chains, it doesn't appear that this brought an equivalent amount of sales.

So why, honestly, do we expect it to be any different for virtual objects like digital comics? I, for one, don't really think there's the incredibly massive audience out there that would be buying comics, oh, if only they didn't have to leave their house to get them. Oh, sure, there will be some, no doubt at all, but I'm hard pressed to imagine any kind of massive influx of readers into our ranks (barring, of course, editorial changes like the "New 52" will, in theory, engender)

And that's why I think that, largely, a significant portion of the day-and-date audience will merely be conversions from print readers, rather than entirely new readers. There's a bunch of people that digital is great for: people overseas, or, say, in the military, people with New York-sized apartments, people who don't want to drive an hour to get to their "local" shop, or people who are served by local stores that (illogically!) won't stock the comics they want to buy, and so on.. Those are just some of the people who will love digital, but that isn't entirely all new dollars; and if they're not new dollars, that probably means they're being siphoned out of the existing print market -- a market where it is increasingly hard to muster a profitable print run in the first place.

Ultimately, if Direct Market retailers are going to be involved in digital comics, it has to be done in such a way that the retailer's work in putting together a customer list is respected, and is inviolate. And where the retailer's rights as a party are protected.

It is my wholly individual and independent belief that the contract we've been offered doesn't even come close to the minimum standards that might be considered acceptable to the average retailer. And while I think that some of the most egregious-to-retailers (you give up your right to sue or form class action lawsuits; comiXology has the right to use your service marks to promote their digital service; you're obligated to promote the service in-store to existing customers; there are some circumstances where you don't receive even a single penny until you sell well over 600 comics, and so on and so forth) sections of the current could certainly be made less egregious, I think the root core of the problem is that comiXology wants to be the retailer of digital, and not the distributor, and that's what we'll end up calling "irreconcilable differences" at the end of the day.

I'm not really sure what DC really wants, other than an easy way for consumers to be able to buy digital comics (which is as it should be!), but simply by letting this plan and this contract through in the form it has, I have to think that DC implicitly approves of its paradigmatic underpinnings, if not also doing so explicitly.

And that dramatically changes my perception of DC Comics, and the relationship my class of trade has with them.

One of the things DC has appeared to pride itself on, over the years, is its collegial relationship with the Direct Market retailer. DC, for example, has been the largest supporter of retailer events and gatherings as long as I've been a retailer; or (for another example) been the only DM publisher with a co-op program (even if, up until recently, it was sort of useless). And I think it is a fair assertion to say that if you asked retailers if they trusted a publisher, DC would have almost certainly came out on top.

I know that to some of the readership of this column none of this matters to you: what difference does it make to you who has what rights and responsibilities where when it comes to where you buy a digital comic. I get that. But I also know that without the Direct Market, the "comics industry" will almost certainly collapse overnight. Not comics themselves, of course, for as long as people have drawing tools and an imagination there will be comics; but the very ability to sell what is almost certainly three-quarters or more of what "mainstream" publishers produce would likely have it's economic underpinnings ripped away, almost certainly including an awful lot of comics that you individually like.

As consumers, local business is in your best interests. Local businesses keep money flowing through your local economies, local business pay things like licenses, fees, and taxes that keep your local schools and hospitals open -- out of state retailers take that money with them. And I think it is truly a shame that at the end of the day, I'd really love to embrace digital with both arms within my own business, but the terms we've been offered here are, frankly, insulting to any sensible business owner.

Even more reason for you to support your local retailer!

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, even if this column and every other one is purely and entirely his individual viewpoint as an individual retailer! Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase two collections of the first Tilting at Windmills (originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) published by IDW Publishing, as well as find an archive of pre-CBR installments right here.

TAGS:  tilting at windmills, dc comics, comixology, digital comics

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