It was a weird November, one that left me more shaken than any other month of comics, and more nervous about the future of this business that I love so much.
You see, it was discovered that DC Comics had suddenly shifted their digital release times so that comics were available digitally roughly ten hours before being available in comic book shops. I say "discovered" there because DC didn't even have the barest courtesy to inform retailers of this themselves, but, instead we found out by seeing the first story on Rich Johnston's gossip-mongering site. A few hours later, it graduated from rumor to fact, with this report on Robot 6.
There's a couple of reasons this hit as hard as it has in the retail community (and I don't think I've seen a body of retailers as pissed off with a single mind on a topic since the days of Terry Stewart and Marvel Mart), and to fully understand them is going to require a bit of backstory.
First, and the thought that should color your understanding more than anything else is that running a small business -- in almost any industry or circumstance, but especially a retail-based one -- is very difficult. Look around at the stores owners in the industry: it's pretty difficult to find any who are rich, and most are barely getting by. Not because of anything in particular about comics, but because retail is very hard.
I say this not as a move for sympathy or something -- "Boo hoo, poor us!" -- but so that you understand that most retailers I know do so because they're doing it for love and passion, not especially for the Big Bucks involved. I know that I could be making six figures doing Anything Else, but I've invested the entirety of my adult life into the medium I love, and a great portion of my hopping out of bed every morning is because I love working with the companies that I work with, not that I'm getting rich doing so.
Second, because most stores are working off such small margins, this means is all it could take is a small shift in customer buying patterns to potentially collapse any given store. 5-10% customer migration could cause a cascade failure of stores going under because most small businesses (in virtually any field) work under very tight cash flow needs.
This should always be of some measure of concern for consumers, because what could happen is if the wrong 10% of print customers move to digital, the other 90%, who aren't really interested in digital even a little bit, could lose their ability to buy print comics as a result.
Third, the migration that everyone thought was going to happen with day-and-date release didn't appear to happen -- we're well past a year now since almost every comic book published is also available digitally, and unlike any other media that experienced that shift, sales of the physical object went up and stayed there. Digital appears at this point to be mostly additive.
I speak to a lot of people, but most of it isn't for attribution. I can't point you to a link, or show you a chart, or read you a press release either way to back up this assertion, but I can anecdotally tell you that there's a large uniformity amongst publishers I've discussed this with -- titles sell in near-lockstep across platforms, so that if something is a hit in print, it sells well in digital, but if it flops in print, it's also flopping in digital. Further, the percentage of digital sales to print started out in the low-to-mid teens (that is, a title that sells 20,000 print copies, might sell 2-3000 digital copies), and over the last year that percentage has not significantly changed -- it is the same low-to-mid teens. This suggests that the majority of existing print buyers do actually prefer to buy print, at least for now.
Fourth, when DC began day and date, they spent a lot of time and energy going on the road to meet with retailers and talk about their plans. At those meetings specific promises were made that, as long as print continued its primacy, we would, of course, as a matter of common business sense, be given effective "most favored nation" status, as we represent the core of their comics publishing business. This promise was made sincerely and face to face and was understood by every person in that room.
So, when DC Entertainment suddenly broke that promise right before Thanksgiving, I was fairly appalled. Not only because they didn't have the common decency to tell us to our faces, not only because it directly no-fooling broke a promise they made to our faces just a year before, but mostly because it doesn't make a tremendous amount of business sense to give a weaker segment a clear market advantage over your primary economic engine. It just doesn't make sense if there's not momentum in that direction, and the publishers are telling us that there isn't.
Ultimately it shows the retail community that, all of their pretty words to the contrary, DC Entertainment really doesn't care about any of our businesses. DC Comics, under Paul Levitz, always and unflinchingly had our backs, but that left us 38 months ago when Paul was removed from the company.
In that time, DCE has abandoned most of the policies that made it a great publisher in the first place -- walking away from creators (like Alan Moore's wishes on "Before Watchmen"), from imprints (the slow Warner's strangulation of Vertigo appears to have finally chased out Karen Berger), and now from the Direct Market.
Clearly there are factions at Warner Bros that believe it is smarter to just want to deal with five or six major retailers rather than the cat-herding chaos that is the Direct Market. And, maybe it will be, in the long run. Now, I don't think so, because the corporate culture at those major retailers is not one that actually values comics or the medium in any real fashion, and so once Apple or Amazon or Google or Microsoft or whoever take their vig for content distribution, they don't care about comics a second past that.
But then, it isn't like the Warner Bros corporation really actually cares about comics either, so at least everyone is on a level playing ground at that point!
Or the Disney corporation, for that matter.
If I'm going to work long hours for not as much pay as I could be making doing something else, that's fine as long as that's my passion. But I can safely say that do so on behalf of Warner Bros or Disney? Not my passion. Not even a eensey bit.
A lot of people think "digital" is going to kill comics. I really don't -- I believe in the physical objects that I sell, and in talking my customers, not a one of them says they're looking to make a move to digital. No, I think what's going to "kill comics" is ultimately the quarterly-driven decisions of Warner Bros and Disney that will try to incrementally squeeze more profit until the point that entire thing collapses. Whether it's $4 bi-weekly comics at one or this type of poisonous lying at the other, the writing is on the wall: they're going to wring it until it breaks.
Among my peers, I suppose I'm in a better state than most -- we sell 96% comics and graphic novels, and, of that, Warner and Disney is only 53% of our sales. For the larger market it is currently almost 74%.
The harder question is always what to do about it, and on a local level we all individually have to try and use our purchasing power to our own best advantages. I know that I've already started "trimming the fat" on some DC books -- another six or seven new 52 titles switched over to "subs only" this month as a direct response, and I'm taking a much more critical look at what backstock I reorder. Clearly, no comic book store can or should survive without carrying "Batman" and "Justice League" or whatever other commercial material that DC produces. But all of the uncommercial d-list stuff that we discussed in depth last month? Yeah, I don't need to be risking my money on those any longer.
I'm even looking at it going forward. For example, there's a new monthly ongoing title that DC in the current order form we're ordering that has "cancelled before issue #13" written all over it. It would need a phenomenal level of help and support to even stand the slightest chance, because it stars a character that is, in fact, an active object of derision amongst the DC customer base. The only reason they're even throwing this one at the wall is because there's a connection to a commercial franchise that they're also launching that month. But even that connection really has no chance of letting this comic sell over 20k in the national market by issue #7. So why, I am now thinking, should I even order a single rack copy of this first issue of a monthly comic in the first place? Why not just save all of the time and the unsold copies and hassle and just not stock the book on my rack at all? We listed it on our monthly subscriber update, everyone has a fair chance to let me know if they're interested in the comic at all. But past that? What allegiance do I have to a company that just demonstrated how it keeps its specific promises? To what extent should I be working to maximize sales opportunities for publishers that clearly disdain my class of trade?
I wonder what would happen if every retailer also made the same decision? Picked the same book, and ordered it in the same way? I guess DC could try to make up the losses in digital sales…
It isn't just stocking; there's a lot of weight that gets utilized in any store, from how we arrange displays, to what we choose to put out in the windows for passers-by, to what we feature on the cover of our in-house newsletter. There's actually a dozen different ways, or more, that we subtly influence our customer's choices, and I've already found myself making decisions in the last two weeks to shift those influences more towards publishers and creators who haven't actively betrayed my trust. And I'm sure a lot of other retailers are making similar calculations on their own.
With a level playing field, where all comers sell the same goods at the same prices at the same times, I am very confident that digital comics will continue to only be a bonus sale on top of their print counterparts -- the last year has, I think, established this well. What I fear however, is a lopsided playing field -- it is hard to even have a chance of competing when your competitor is given a half day's jump on you; especially when one of the largest competitors is infamous for squeezing margin on the publisher side while they simultaneously destroy the notion of Suggested Retail Price, and ruin ecosystems that help entertainment media thrive. Merchandising does matter to sales of art, as does seller commitment to the works they are selling.
Ultimately, the conclusion that I've come to this week (and, yes, you may say that I'm a few decades late to that conclusion) is that my market is largely existing at the suffrage of corporate entities who really don't care about us whatsoever. While in the past, specific individuals within those corporations have done their best to shelter us, but now that comics have been "discovered" by Hollywood, et al (remember: always be careful what you wish for!) the pressure is on for comics to conform to their rigid values. Even if those values will ultimately sell fewer comics, and harm the very medium from making short term decisions.
I'm saddened by this realization, and I am horrified, and it's making me question every thing that I do, and, if it even, in fact, is wise to continue to stay in retail. Three weeks ago, I would have laughed at any suggestion that I wouldn't be doing this until well into my sixties.
I'm in, as I said, a much more diverse place than most of my peers, but even I couldn't survive in a corporate putsch -- too many customers define themselves in terms of Marvel and DC even as the companies that own those brands have largely changed the brands to be nearly unrecognizable from what attracted us all to them in the first place.
Creators, too, need to be concerned about this -- everything I hear from creators is that company owned digital work is not paying them well enough to earn their daily bread. When there is real money to be made in comics, it is almost entirely in backlist (cf: The Walking Dead, for the most edge example), but that backlist can't exist without a dedicated and passionate sales force to support. If you write or draw for Marvel or DC, a strong Direct Market is entirely in your favor.
I think there's a path through this, but it is going to take a painful and honest re-evaluation of a lot of our key day-to-day assumptions. And I worry a lot of retailers are neither capable of, or interested in anything like that.
What I do know, however, is that for 23 years, I've been considered a "DC Store," and, indeed, DC comics is the largest publisher we carry. But an enormous amount of that is my passive and unconscious belief in my head that "DC was my friend". That was hard-earned capital painstakingly built by Paul Levitz and Bob Wayne, and their crews. And that capital was virtually all just squandered in a single move by Warner Bros.
It could be rebuilt of course, but it would take a firm and immediate reversal of course, and that's something corporations seldom do.
In the meantime, I'm going to turn more to works put out by publishers that don't lie to my face, and creators who can regularly produce work that they are passionate about. I'd rather give my passion and enthusiasm (and money!) to Robert Kirkman & Charlie Adlard, or Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples every day over giving that same passion to Warner Bros or the Disney corporation.
Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, and is one of the founders of , 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.