Tilting at Windmills: FCBD 2012

Thu, May 10th, 2012 at 11:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer
22

Several smaller topics this time out, not a single over-arching one...

Last weekend was the happiest one of the year -- it was Free Comic Book Day!

Now in its tenth year, FCBD is easily the single best promotion comics have ever come up with (to which we have to continually say: Thanks, Joe Field!), and this year ratcheted it up another notch -- at Comix Experience we had our single best sales day in twenty-three years, finally beating our old record from way way back in 1992 (!) when we had Neil Gaiman and five artists signing the $30 "Season of Mists" hardcover on its release weekend.

The most satisfying part of this result for me, personally, is that we really did nothing to promote FCBD this year -- I didn’t even bother to put up the poster in the window -- and yet the traffic in the store was almost more than we could handle at points. We also radically decreased the number of comics that adults were allowed to take from "unlimited, but don’t be greedy" to just two picks. Kids, we kept at unlimited. What’s interesting was that I observed more people being genuinely thoughtful and considerate with their picks, rather than the usual "let’s grab lots, because they are free!," and the sense that I got was that people seemed much more interested in what they eventually picked.

Because there’s a few dirty little secrets behind FCBD that we usually don’t talk about in polite company. The primary one is that, despite being a wonderful showcase of comic book stores and comic books in general, FCBD is a pretty terrible event in terms of generating new long-term customers on specific books. There is not, that I’ve ever been able to determine, any kind of direct correlation between titles given away on FCBD, and future sales of that title. Looking at the overall sales charts, the market would certainly seem to agree as well. The real example in my individual store was "Atomic Robo," which is a wonderfully fun and entertaining comic. It is also one that never has sold well for Comix Experience -- in fact, we’ve not been able to sell more than one single rack copy of the periodical release since at least 2007’s original series. We happily passed out hundreds of FCBD "Atomic Robo" in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011. But I decided to stop in 2012 -- we still weren’t selling more than that one single rack copy. All of those giveaway comics? Didn’t move the sales needle one single inch.

It isn’t just me, either, in March of 2008 (just before the first FCBD book) "Atomic Robo" #6 (of 6) sold 3672 copies. In December 2011, "Atomic Robo: Ghost of Station X" #4 sold 3666 copies. No apparent movement in the market after four solid years of giving this title away on one of the biggest days of a store’s year.

And that’s for a good comic book.

FCBD is great for giving people who don’t normally go into comic book stores a reason to come into the comic book store. FCBD is beyond awesome for kids who aren’t able to afford their own comic books. FCBD is a very nice way for publishers to put their best foot forward and show people what they’re capable of, and as a nice piece of "bragging rights." But as a method to directly sell specific books? No, it’s never functioned like that.

The other majorly (seemingly) secret is that "Free" Comic Book Day comics aren’t actually "free" to the retailers -- we pay anywhere between 20 and 39 cents per giveaway book. Retailers are also "forced" to buy a selection of books -- the "gold" sponsors, of which this year, there were ten of these that we have to commit to having books in stock of.

This isn’t so brutally heinous except when its titles that you can’t sell as a store -- like, for Comix Experience, a good example of "Transformers." We don’t sell a single copy of "Transformers." Not even a subscription order ("Atomic Robo" has those!) -- but because IDW is a Premier (front of the catalog) publisher, and, therefore semi-automatically a "Gold" FCBD participant, I’m obligated to give away "Transformers" comics that aren’t even within the demographic alignment of my store, or what I’d like to represent to the general public.

I believe that the FCBD committee needs to seriously rethink the way stores become "participating" stores -- I totally understand the value in demanding that stores have a range of the "official" free giveaways, but mandating that we stock things that we don’t/can’t/won’t sell seems absolutely counter-productive. My suggestion would be that stores should be able to substitute any two "Silver" books for any single "Gold" book. While an "All ‘Gold’" store would be obligated to have ten distinct FCBD books, a "No ‘Gold’" store would then be obligated to have twenty distinct books in stock at the minimum participation number -- that would seem to me to meet the goals of FCBD in a much fairer way, and create an even greater diversity of stock on the ground.

Finally, publishers need to really watch their pricing on these. This year I decided that I simply wouldn’t stock any book that cost more than 30 cents-per, regardless of what it was. That meant I didn’t carry the Fantagraphics "Donald Duck" comic, which I felt a personal sense of loss from (Yes, I’d rather give children a Carl Barks story, than "Mega Man," thanks).


Long time readers of this might recall the half-dozen times over the last two decades in this column I opined something along the lines of "God forbid that DC publisher Paul Levitz gets hit by a bus or something," and thankfully Paul is still safe and sound, but now that we’re at about a year and a half since Paul’s resignation from DC Comics, and the company’s subsequent change to "DC Entertainment," I think it is safe to say that I was fairly right in my fears of what would happen with his departure.

Down is up, left is right, cats and dogs are living together, they’re doing prequels to "Watchmen," and so forth.

DC has changed its website to focus on selling digital comics (above) rather than print versions

Among the things I’ve found to be staggering changes in M.O. the last few months are DC’s response to Chris Roberson (Honestly, if, as Jim Lee said, "You have to imagine from our perspective, for our own internal morale, what does it say for a company to hire somebody who’s that vocally against our principles and yet we’re still paying them." Then that really makes me wonder just how bad their own "internal morale" is, in the first place, when what is nearly their lowest selling freelancer presents what was absolutely a calm resignation) -- Levitz’s DC might never have worked with Roberson ever again, but they wouldn’t have done so in quite the same spectacularly public fashion that created even more controversy; or the recent changes to their website where the "looking for a comic?" page changed from something primarily focused on selling print comics in stores, to primarily focusing on selling digital; or, maybe most insidiously, the movement to DC selling exclusiveDC Direct product directly to fans on their website.

I stopped selling most DC Direct material a long time ago (mostly because they seem incapable of keeping permanent stock items -- like generic Batman action figures -- like they do with their TPB program) so I don’t necessarily have a horse in this specific race, but much like the Martin Niemöller quote, I think I can recognize the beginnings of a slippery slope. If this succeeds, how many moves are we away from hearing "Yeah, we’ve decided that we’re going to release the next Jim Lee graphic novel purely in house"? Not far enough for my taste, no sir.

I don’t have any real problem with DC (or any manufacturer) selling product directly to consumers -- there’s always customers that brick & mortar retailers won’t be able to reach, and why shouldn’t the publisher step in at that point? -- but I strongly believe that exclusive products are an inherently provocative and ill-considered way to compete in that space.


One thing that Comic Retailers joke about (though not in a "how funny!" way, but maybe in more of a dull, resigned way) is the phrase "Diamond Regrets the Error."

Diamond, see, regrets a lot of errors.

Diamond also makes a lot of decisions fairly unilaterally that don’t make any real sense to people who actually have to use their programs on a day-to-day basis, and live with the results of those decisions.

Sometimes this is relatively minor stuff, like the redesign of the retailer website in such a way that reorder confirmation pages only have the "next page" button at the top of a page, so you have to scroll back up each and every time (ugh) to proceed with your work. But then there are decisions they make with much more drastic results.

We can backtrack a few steps here to set up the story and remind everyone that comic retailers had fought tooth and nail for "street dates" -- the receipt of material a day or more before we’re allowed to sell it, so we have time to do our work -- for a very long time, and we’re nearly at the year and a half mark for the program. The biggest impediment to it being unveiled for most of those years? Diamond. Diamond insisted that there would be major compliance problems, and that they didn’t want to be the "police" and so on and so forth. As with most things, it took a retailer to finally pitch a way to solve the problem (It was Paul Stock of Librairie Astrowho finally said, "Look, just charge us a small amount each week to fund a compliance team, already"), and Diamond finally came around.

Lo and behold there have been exceedingly few problems, just as most of us retailers predicted -- who doesn’t want more time to do mission-critical work? Wednesdays are much nicer affairs for everyone now.

So, you’ll color me... mm, amused? ...depressed? ....resigned, maybe? that we’ve just had the single largest mass breaking of street date since the beginning of the program, and the problem was one entirely created by (wait for it!) Diamond. Wha--?!?!

No, it’s true! Here’s how it went down: Marvel, for the release of "Avengers Vs. X-Men" #1, wanted to have Tuesday release parties for the book. Marvel, as I understand it, even stepped up and told Diamond that it was willing to pay any extra freight charges incurred to get the book to participants on time. But I guess "too many" stores decided to participate, and Diamond unilaterally decided that they’d just ship everyone "AvX" #1 an entire week early, and expect them to hold it.

This plan could have worked, maybe, if Diamond had done any one of a number of things they could have (with ease): not billed the books upon receipt (a huge huge cash flow issue for stores on COD), marked the invoice with "Do not sell until X," packed the books separately with same markings, even put a piece of paper in with "AvX" #1 explaining why the books were arriving early. Any of that.

So, picture yourself as a small store on COD, who isn’t participating in the party, and generally isn’t clued in to industry things, the books show up in your box, no note, no explanation, what are you going to do with them? Duh, sell them, of course -- they billed you for them, didn’t they? It’s not only small stores -- there are also large metro stores with uninvolved ownership, staffed by unaware employees. They open the box, the put the books on the rack. That’s how it works every week, why should this book be any different?

That happened here in town -- one major store sold AvX #1 most of Wednesday, unknowing about the early shipment. To their credit, they stopped as soon as things were explained to them, but still, the damage was done. Apparently, this kind of thing happened all over the country.

So, this is entirely Diamond’s fault in not taking the necessary steps to ensure that all retailers knew what the deal was -- and, in point of fact, it went against how the publisher wanted to handle the distribution (separate shipments to only the participating stores) -- so what was Diamond’s response? Surely they offered some sort of concession, perhaps returnability, perhaps some other minor make good, like, I don’t know, a freight credit or something to every retailer? Something to tangibly say "we know some percentage of stores were harmed by this, here’s our way of making you whole"?

Nope. Not a thing. Diamond didn’t even publicly acknowledge that they erred. Which makes the punchline all the sweeter -- retailers hate "Diamond regrets the error," but I’d rather get an insincere apology than radio silence.

I’m no Diamond hater -- I think Diamond does an entirely decent job in what is a very difficult business with fairly terrible margins. I’ve found that when they make individual mistakes and are called on it, they almost always step up and fix the problem. But, in these kinds of wide-ranging mistakes, they’re just not any good at fixing or ameliorating the problems.

And that’s a damn shame.


One last thing I’d like to enter into "the permanent record" is that I now have a digital comics storefront. This may surprise some of you readers who have me branded as "anti-digital." However, I’m really no such thing -- rather, I am extremely pro-Direct Market, and anti-delusions-of-Golden-Cities that some people get when they discuss digital.

Ultimately, I think comics are a niche entertainment form, not a mass one, and that we should embrace that rather than cry about it. Comics are much sexier when there’s a smaller number of people "in the know" about them. There is no doubt that our market clearly has any number of problems, but virtually all of them are solvable, and any other niche art form would be enthralled to have the kind of far-flung network of dedicated, independent, specialty shops that we’ve built in the Direct Market!

Comics as a medium in America has struggled with "Ah, if only..." for as long as I’ve been selling them. "Ah, if only comics were in bookstores we’ll finally be embraced as a mass media" -- well, we got comics in bookstores, and, guess what? Still not a mess medium. Digital is the newest permutation here, and the same thing is going to happen -- because the problem is less a distribution one than a problem of education, awareness and trained desire to read comics. While it is absolutely advantageous to be able to now have 24-hour/day access to "a comics shop" via digital, that alone doesn’t begin to solve problems like "Americans generally don’t read for pleasure" or "the scope of intra- and inter-book continuity from our largest publishers is daunting," and so on. For Americans do have 24-hour/day access to print comics now, really, via Amazon, and we haven’t seen explosions in print runs -- why would digital be any different, then?

Clearly there’s a huge value in digital comics for people with issues of access or space or portability, or any number of other reasons, but digital can no more grow the market than the book format alone did.

Ultimately, I might compare comics to poetry, another nichey subset of the overall book market. People, I am sure, could download thousands of poems into their digital devices, but are they? Do they want to do that, or even know that they might enjoy a lot of poetry in the first place?

I’m sure that both poets and poetry fans would be enthralled if they had a network of thousands of specialty stores that focus exclusively, or near-exclusively on poetry (though I suspect the haiku fans would be concerned that sonnets just get too much rack space and attention, right?)

Either way, I like selling comics, and if some people would prefer to buy them digitally, then it is certainly worth trying to find a way to satisfy those people. The Diamond/iVerse storefront lets me be the seller, rather than handing my customers over to a third party, so let’s give it a try and see what happens.

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, fcbd, atomic robo, dc comics, diamond comics, avx, digital comics

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