Tilting at Windmills: Reaching the Summit

Fri, May 23rd, 2014 at 4:58am PDT

Comic Books
Brian Hibbs, Staff Writer
11

Just got back from the Diamond Comics "Retail Summit" in Las Vegas (and boy are my arms tired, wokka wokka wokka).

For those of you who don't know (which, really, is probably most of you), a Summit is somewhat close to a comics convention, except that it is for retailers only. There are no (or very few) creators in attendance, and no fans (though, of course, a store could choose to send one of their customers posing as staff, and who would know?), but otherwise, the setup is generally the same: there are panels, there's an exhibit floor with publishers set up, there's late night drinking, and so on.

It is just retailers from around the country, and publishers, and, of course, Diamond, talking about business for a couple of days and nights.

Generally, there's a Summit every year or so, though I seldom attend because of the travel times -- Summits are typically one full day and two half days... But the half days are mostly people arriving or leaving, so you really only get one solid day of work, and to fly for four to six hours for that is a smidge hard to justify. But this year, it being in Vegas meant it was a short, cheap, flight; and with the second store, I thought it was a really good idea to bring both of my managers along and introduce them to the various publishers and have them see how things get done.

There's a track of programming, but instead of it being "information about your favorite television show" or "history of comics" or "interview with a creator," at a Summit it is more business related topics like "How to best use social media" or "creating attractive in-store displays" or other nuts-and-bolts kind of retailer-driven programming.

The exhibit floor is where most of the action is at, really, and this is where a Summit is the closest to a regular comics convention. The booths are set up in a ring, various publishers attend and show you upcoming wares, and are there to listen to your concerns or take notes how to make things better for the future, and so on. I always dislike a comics convention because they're consumer-driven and I always feel like my standing in front of a booth with my retailer concerns is getting in the way of the customers having a good time -- at comics conventions you get a lot of stop-and-start business conversations as we work around the fans.

Diamond structured part of the Exhibit Floor time as "roundtables," where you are assigned a group of 10-ish other retailers and you herd around each booth for 10 minutes at each. Most vendors decided to use this time for a "presentation," almost always focusing on stuff that was either already out or was in the latest catalog, but I think this is foolish -- as a retailer, I already have a pretty exceptional understanding of the stock available to me, and I almost certainly have a better grasp of what's listed in "Previews" then they do... because if I don't, my family doesn't get to eat that month. Really, the much better course is to do little presentation, and to use your time for Q&A. Really, only three publishers did this in what I would consider the smarter way: IDW, Image, and Marvel.

Also unique to a Summit is that it is certainly nice to be able to talk without having to modulate your intent so you don't "spoil" things for fans -- being able to talk directly without worrying about consumers is refreshing.

At a Summit, as well, there are far fewer attendees. At a total guess, it looked to me that there were far less than 300 people at the show, maybe even as few as 200. At points (though rarely so) it felt like there was a Diamond employee standing around for every three retailers.

Let's talk about Diamond a little. I, certainly, have my problems with the company, as any working retailer might, and I absolutely think that there have been several points in history where the conservative nature of the company has made exactly the wrong call for what I believe the best-possible course for the artform of comics would have been, but as a business entity, Diamond does their job in a diligent way.

Given the number of SKUs that Diamond has to pack and ship each week, and given the finicky nature of our product and the consumer (we sell a putatively "collectible" product where a "9.8" or above is considered the goal to have on the shelves -- for fragile paper products held together by staples, that pass through multiple sets of hands before reaching the shelves! That's crazy!), I think Diamond does a reasonably good and accurate job most weeks. Could they do better? Well, sure -- in the last 300 shipments from Baker & Taylor, B&T has missed shipping exactly one book, and damaged maybe five, where that's a "good week" for a Diamond shipment -- but, then, Diamond is shipping me ten times the amount of product than B&T does.

More importantly, I've always found Diamond to be ridiculously good about fixing mistakes. When full titles go missing, over a reasonable dollar threshold, Diamond has always understood the notion that most comics are time-sensitive, and are willing to do "emergency shipment" with two-day or overnight shipping -- and this despite the fact that, given the sometimes single-digit margins they're working under, that they're losing money by solving the problem.

Now, I clearly think that if they invested more in upfront wages, staff retention, a proper training and double-check systems, they'd probably save more money than they spend in fixing mistakes, but you know, differences in style and all that.

If Diamond has a real problem from my point of view, it's that too few of their employees are properly comics people, with the passions and knowledge that that brings. One gets the sense, in talking to many of Diamond's staff, that comics are merely widgets to them, a thing to get from one place to another. I think this makes them far less effective in understanding what retailers want or need, or what the best direction forward for the medium itself might be. But, when it comes to mechanical distribution it's hard to suggest that passion trumps competence. And Diamond is nothing but competent.

So, this show moved smoothly enough. Really, the only real hitch was when they gave out the variant comics after dinner on Saturday night (said variants presumably being able to underwrite the cost for retailers to attend) and they had six employees individually handing them out, creating a 45 minute line and a bottle-neck at the door -- it would have been so much smarter to have pre-packed them into bags, then just handing each attendee one object, rather than six different ones. But maybe they were less confident about their ability to accurately distribute the books, ha!

No, if I had to make one serious complain about this year's Summit, it would be Vegas itself. Well, or maybe not Vegas, but the Strip and the hotels and all of that. That place is gross. We were in one of the newer joints, Planet Hollywood (which one wag described as "being trapped in a multi-floor Hot Topic for three days"), but the hotels are all noisy and distracting and absolutely reeking at all times of cigarette smoke. It is very difficult to have a quiet conversation, and trying to find people in the crowd after the event breaks for dinner is next to impossible. There were several people that I was looking forward to chatting with who vaporized once the scheduled day was done.

Vegas is so much about desperation, about people having "fun," when they really don't look like they are really. Vegas is about extracting as much money from you as possible, like a theme park for adults, but just without any of the heart that a good park can have. When your choice of hotel bars is either pounding DJ dance music, with actual go-go girls (ew), or pounding pop-music live cover bands (ew!), it just isn't an environment that I especially want to be in. I'd much rather the next West Coast Summit take place in someplace relatively staid like San Jose or Anaheim or something. Well, I'd want San Francisco, but I know the hotel costs are probably too high...

An observation that made me extremely happy this year was just how many women owners were in attendance. I'm not the best at estimating, but if you told me 20% of the owners at the Summit were female, I wouldn't be at all surprised. This is a pretty dramatic sea change since the last Summit I attended five-plus years ago. Though, the crowd isn't really any less white these days, which is a shame. Comics fans are an incredibly diverse bunch, and getting more diverse every day, and the retail base couldn't be hurt by increasing its own diversity. So, it was pretty thrilling to me to see just that many women in attendance at the Summit.

One last thing about my fellow attendees, however. For decades, for literal decades, we've been trying to improve the level of trust and professionalism in the business. As one example, I mentioned above that I find presentations of things that are already in the catalog to be a huge waste of time -- I am perfectly able to read on my own. What I see value in is getting access to plans and programs before they get written into stone and nothing can change about them. I like to get exposed to new creative ideas months before they get solicited, so I can start laying the groundwork of excitement, both for my customers, and for my staff. This is what adults do, this is what professionals do.

What professionals really shouldn't do is rush off to a rumor site trying desperately to be the first to "break" news that isn't yours to break. I'm fairly sickened to see that site updated nearly in real time about what publishers were saying, and I think it is frankly pathetic that those retailers think it is better to get a momentary ego-stroke than it is for publishers to release information in the way they want to. Events like this now can have less scoops and values for everyone because the smallest minority just can't keep it in their pants.

It is especially horrific when a publisher specifically says "please don't film or photograph this," and yet someone does. It is appalling, appalling behavior.

In the balance, I'm pleased enough to have attended this year's summit -- it gave me a chance to see some friends I don't get to see enough, and to pitch a few ideas designed to make things better for the mass of retailers. With a quarter-century of retailing behind me, it's nice to have a venue in which you know your opinions will at least be listened to and considered, and retailer gatherings are always important for that. Further, I'm really glad my two managers had a chance to meet some people, to better understand why player X takes action Y, and I think it will help them make better orders for our customers going forward. Win!

For myself, I don't know that I'd rush to another, especially on another coast. The cost of travel, etc. is too high for what really doesn't amount, for me, to more than a nice socializing opportunity, though I can see that it has tons of value for people with less experience than I (my staff, as I said, felt a lot of benefit). I especially, will never go to another industry event in Las Vegas -- the place is gross.

One final note from the Summit: my long-time friend-slash-adversary Bob Wayne pulled me aside to privately and personally tell me that he was leaving DC Comics after 28 years, when the move to Burbank comes. I was saddened (though not really surprised).

RELATED: Sales Exec Bob Wayne to Leave DC Comics Before Burbank Move

I was saddened because the Direct Market has not had a stronger watchdog and advocate in publishing in all of that time. Bob was one of us -- he came directly out of retailing, and he got what the gig entailed, and what our needs were. And despite the gig changing pretty dramatically over the years (you don't understand ordering comics in the 21st Century unless you've actually done it in the 21st Century, even if the 20th Century way of doing it was kind of similar-ish), Bob has always been the guy that you knew was going to keep looking after the best interests of the Direct Market.

I wasn't really surprised because Bob just celebrated his 60th birthday, and he's not really a Burbank kind of guy (little too witheringly acerbic, I think), and, well, that I think that DC is going to radically change when it moves, whether it wants to or not. Whether that change will be for the better or not, I will leave to your judgment, but it strikes me that there are probably more interesting ways to spend your third act than being in the middle of that level of corporate intrigue.

Because I absolutely think my friend is going to have a third act. I suspect there's some sort of contractual "non-compete" clause, especially at the level that Bob was at -- but hopefully it isn't for more than a year, because there are many players in this business who could use this man's wisdom and understanding of how the Direct Market works.

The thing that makes me quake a bit is that this really radically shrinks "Institutional Memory" at DC -- sometimes things are done or not done for reasons that are not necessarily inherently obvious. Here is hoping that DC elevates Bob's #2, Vince Letterio, to the appropriate level, as he's the next most-knowing person in the place. I'd really not like to repeat past errors only because there isn't someone at the right level of power to stop it because the company has forgotten its history.

Bob always kept us safe from ignorance and foolishness (well, or at least tried), which is exactly why DC is as strong of a publisher as it has been -- there's little question that Marvel will usually do better than DC because Marvel is a stronger brand, but I believe that Bob is one of the major reasons that the gap in market share isn't twice or thrice what it is now.

In fact, I've been thinking for months that, because of editorial reasons, I would not be surprised if DC dropped to become my #3 publisher sometime in 2015 (And we've, historically, always been a DC store!), this news just makes it more likely in my mind that that could happen.

As I said: here's to Bob's third act. Having that level of brainpower unfettered by corporate needs should be joyous to behold.


Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, was a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, has sat on the Board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and has been an Eisner Award judge. 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. Brian is also available to consult for your publishing or retailing program.

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TAGS:  tilting at windmills, diamond retailer summit, bob wayne

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