Tilting at Windmills: Is Digital the "Ultimate" Future?

Thu, November 17th, 2011 at 11:58pm PST

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer
44

"Value Added" Digital?

Another column of lots of little things, rather than a single big opinion piece!

Let's start with the third month of the DC reboot -- admittedly we're only at week #2 as I'm writing this, but I'm feeling pretty OK about sales here. While there are a handful of books that are flopping out (nothing to be surprised about with fifty-two titles!), virtually everything is keeping much of its sales. This is subjective, to an extent, unless you're extremely careful to match like to like. By this I mean, if I'm looking at my sales of "Action Comics" #1, that's 10 weeks of data stacked against six weeks for issue #2, and just two weeks for the #3. Most spreadsheets or POS are going to (naturally) present you with cumulative-to-date sales, and, yow, maybe those don't look too favorable? For me, that would show a 43% drop between issue #1 & #2, and 49% between #2 & 3, but when you more properly narrow it to "First seven days on sale," suddenly, that's only a 27% and 21% drop respectively, right in line with the ordering rule of thumb of "80% for #2, 80% of that for #3."

And, given that "Action" #1's first week sales, compared to "Action" (v1) #904, were something like 650%, I'm absolutely enthusiastic here -- books that had "old DCU" equivalents are, for the most part, multiples of what they were previously.

Naturally, books that are workmanlike, or poorly received/reviewed, are selling what they were (or, in one case, at least, already worse), but that was always going to be the case. But the books that actually have a distinct POV or a passion that can be communicated? On those I'm seeing considerably shallower drops between #2 & #3 -- several with only 3-5% drops (which can translate into a single copy on some).

I suspect we'll see 3-5 titles cancelled very quickly, because the integrity of the magic number "52" is much less important than not having anchors that drag you down -- and on these titles, it is not possible to argue that they didn't have every opportunity to be given a chance in front of the readership.

Still, I'm going to have a lot of copies of some of the #2s left over, because I totally overcompensated my FOC orders after the smash success of the #1s -- eleven of them just aren't returnable ("thanks" to variants, or deep discount incentives). The only one I'm really going to choke on is "Justice League" #2, and even there, I'm hoping I'll lose half or more of my inventory-on-hand before I finally remove it from the shelves at or around week 21.

(Not all books are going to get 21 weeks-on-sale -- I'm committed to 16 or so on many titles, but there are some that I can see need to be yanked from the shelf after just 30 days -- and once we're past this initial "honeymoon" phase, I'll be capping most things at the "normal" 12 weeks max)

Finally: one thing to consider when you see sales charts over the next few months, and pundits try to spin the numbers to represent one thing or another, is that Diamond sales charts are lagging market indicators. Orders on #2s are a reaction to (usually) only the first week or two of #1s sales, it's not really until month #4 that you can be confident of what month #2 actually sold, and at that point, we're placing our final orders for issue #5 (or, in some cases, #6). The month #3 charts for sales (due in about 2 weeks from now?) aren't going to be as overwhelmingly slanted towards DC, as retailers pull back in the face of the overcompensating for #2 that they largely did, but that they'll readjust won't be "proof" of very much on either side of the debate. This is what markets do.


I note with a large amount of trepidation that Marvel digitally released "Hulk" #2 a full week early. Once they realized their mistake (I believe the same day), they, of course, yanked the issue, but still the damage was done.

Here's what gets me, though: we're about a year into "street dates" on comics (and, yeah, that's looking pretty successful, isn't it? Too bad it took us until 2010 to enter the 20th Century!), and retailers had to agree to a pretty strong set of rules in order to get that. "Breaking street" is a pretty serious affair for a store, and I'm sure that if I, or one of my peers released "Hulk" #2 even a few hours early, we'd been in pretty significant trouble.

Yet, Marvel gets away with just an "oops?"

We're being told that Marvel and/or Diamond "can't" take returns on this comic (which, incidentally, appears to be different than solicited) because Marvel sent out an (unsolicited) overship on the issue. I'm not clear what one has to do with the other, other than "we're afraid that people are going to send back the overship," but frankly, that's their problem, not ours.

Marvel made a catastrophic error in releasing a book early, and it has now been torrented early, and, yet the retailers are expected to bear the cost of that error? That hardly seems fair.

Frankly, there has to be some sort of mechanism imposed to protect the market against this kind of thing. It is entirely unacceptable that Marvel can (even accidentally) make an error like this, and entirely escape any consequence whatever. And yet, everyone (including Marvel) seems to just throw up their hands and say "oh well."

And people ask me why I tend to think the worst of Marvel, and why I hold current regimes accountable for the actions of previous regimes? It's because the current regime refuses to play fair with the market as well!

Duh.

Either way, are we getting to the point where there needs to be some sort of retailer Bill of Rights specifically vis a vis Digital? Because these constant games are getting very tiresome.


Marvel has also announced that the entire line of "Ultimate" comics will follow "Avenging Spider-Man" #1 as being bagged with a (ha) "value-added" free digital copy. Regular readers will recall that I opted to not stock "Avenging Spider-Man" at Comix Experience because of what I perceive as underhanded tricks by Marvel.

(Incidentally: the number of customers who said anything to me about "AvSpid" one way or the other? Zero. Not a single request for this comic since its release. That surprised even me.)

Now, the Ultimate line is, instead, a pre-existing line (albeit it a rapidly fading one at my store), and they've given us plenty of plenty of notice this time that they're doing this, so I'll be carrying these releases, but at the risk of being That Guy, let's talk a little about why I think this is a Bad Plan.

First and foremost, I see no compelling evidence that anything more than the smallest percentage of readers are particularly interested in owning multiple formats for comics ( outliers like Kieron Gillen notwithstanding). My evidence is weak and shaky (mostly consisting of the "AvSpid" situation and the fact that in 250+ sales of the New 52 "Justice League," not a single customer has asked for the digital, bagged version yet), but it strikes me so far that in most cases we're looking at completism, rather than KG's perspective of "I want to be able to give away the hard copy," for the small demand that does exist for having two versions in one package.

I also think that this "digital copy" thing is at least as much cover/justification for line-wide price increases to $3.99 as much as it is anything else. And while Marvel appears to be down to about only seventeen ongoing monthly books priced at $2.99, I absolutely think it would be the wrong thing to price those books up in order to provide the "free" digital code.

But there's also a major mechanical issue at play here, and that's that in order to provide a digital code in a print comic book, the code has to be protected somehow. There's not a real ton of options about how, mechanically, to get a code to the consumer. You can bag the book, like Marvel is doing here (And DC did with "JL"); you could have a scratch off card stapled into the book, or some other method of bound-in code (Marvel proposed an envelope of sorts held on by "booger glue"); you could ask the retailer to physically hand out something with purchase (which is largely untenable past 3-5 items to have to do that with); or you could invest in customer service and 800 numbers and just give free replacement codes to people who buy a book with a code that got stolen.

The last is probably the way to go, honestly -- though I have to say I have a hard time picturing penny-pinching Marvel especially wanting to do that.

The problem with any solution other than the last is that it imposes burdens upon the Direct Market in order to support the digital market -- with no evidence of any kind that a significant portion of the DM customers have any burning desire for the digital copy.

What do I mean about burdens?

Well, let's take bags for the example: bags cut down on browsing, they don't "sit right" on a rack (as they generally don't have a true edge), and they look shabby. There's some interesting questions on the secondary market as to whether or not a bagged comic without the bag is still "mint." They add shipping weight (which we retailers pay for), and, based on recent experiences, they're both prone to more distribution damages as well as taking up more room in shipping boxes, increasing costs.

What's the upside for the retailer for any of this tradeoff?

Bound-in cards have many of the same problems -- stacks of books with inserts have an unfortunate tendency to tip over on the racks, they significantly increase shipping weight, and damages.

And don't even get me started on the notion of retailers handing out codes. This is fine and doable for a book or two or maybe five, but I've got well north of one thousand different periodical comics on my shelves -- that's far too much to even consider trying to handle day-to-day… again, for no upside for the retailer.

I understand that a lot of pro-digital folks are really pushing for codes to be expanded, but I think it's really important to consider the very real mechanical limitations that are inherent in having to hide.

There's another question that I don't think the market has even thought to ask, and that's ultimately, in the long tail, does digital primarily want to sell singles or albums? That doesn't mean it can't sell both, of course, but, from the perspective of the "new" or "untapped" readership that we all know exists out there, what kind of face does comics want to present? Are we trying to sell these people the installments, or the complete story?

Is it better for Comics to be primarily promoting digitally selling the individual tracks, like the music industry does, or are we more akin to the digital book industry?

I think that while there will always be some percentage of digital buyers who want "the Wednesday experience," that number is dwarfed by the amount of people who would be utterly bewildered and put off by that. I'm not suggesting we shouldn't have the digital serializations for those who want them, but why on earth are we trying to integrate the digital and physical periodical experiences with digital codes, when there just doesn't appear to be a crossover audience of any real size?

Shouldn't, therefore, those "free digital copy" "value added" offers be more properly put into the collected editions rather then the periodicals? That's more similar to how free digital codes are handled in DVDs -- you don't get a free digital code for going to the movie theatre, after all.

This solves most of the problems for the retailers fairly immediately, as books rack very differently than periodicals, and can be "naturally" shrinkwrapped without anyone thinking twice.

I don't see how the "free digital copy" is a great value-add for the majority of periodical customers, and it is compounded by the mechanical problems of delivering the code; meanwhile, a book-driven code bypasses most of those concerns, and actually becomes a better "add" of value.

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.

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TAGS:  tilting at windmills, new 52, ultimate comics, digital comics

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