ANATOMY OF A PRESS RELEASE, a/k/a/ DISTRIBUTION SUCKS
I know, I know. Comic book distribution. It's not a shockingly original topic for a comic book columnist, is it? But something struck me from last week. It's a press release that Image sent out to tout the success of RED STAR and POWERS. Implicit in this success is a condemnation of retailers that everyone seems to have missed and, once again, it boggles my mind.
The press release, dated October 9, 2000, starts off fairly well:
"Orange, CA -- POWERS #1 through #5 and THE RED STAR #1 and #2 are sold out. Image Comics has been besieged in the last few weeks with phone calls, e-mails, faxes, and letters regarding the availability of POWERS #1 through #5 and THE RED STAR #1 and #2. We regret to report that we no longer have any copies available of these aforementioned issues. We also regret our inability to answer each query personally and individually as it is distracting us from the business of publishing comics."
Sounds like a concerned publisher with deep regrets that it couldn't print the book fast enough to keep up with orders, doesn't it? The alarms should be ringing already for you. That's not how the system works, is it? Books are printed to the orders the retailers make. All those phone calls, faxes, e-mails, and letters indicate unexpected sales, then.
The release continues:
"However, we have worked directly with the creators of these books to return some copies of their personal stock to Diamond Comic Distributors. Last month we shipped all available copies literally from creators' garages, and our own personal complimentary copy list and archive stock to accommodate as many back order requests as possible. As of this release, systems and inventory should be back in place today to take very limited reorders on Powers #1 (Diamond Reorder code: FEB000802D) and The Red Star #1 (Diamond Reorder code: APR000905D).
OK, here's something you'd only find in a creator-owned book. I doubt Marvel would be asking its creators to give up their comps for Diamond to ship. Of course, the creators at Image are still responsible to pay for the copies that Image mandates get set aside for promotional/comp list purposes. So maybe this kind of high demand is just a nice bottom-line booster for the creators. (I'm assuming Image doesn't skim that money.)
Here's the clincher. Hold on to your seats:
"We assure you that the total print run for each of these individual comic books exceeded the initial orders placed by retailers by a minimum of 43% and a maximum of a 112%. It was always our sincere wish, from the very beginning, to make as many copies of these titles available. We will continue that philosophy with upcoming issues as well. "
POWERS #1, if I remember correctly, overshipped. Retailers were given a number of free copies of the comic for each of their orders. Retailers made a killing on this, obviously, since it is easy to assume they sold out of all of those free bonus copies.
But then they needed more. Judging by the numbers you see above, it's obvious they needed a LOT more.
They under-ordered these books in massive amounts. I can give them RED STAR. That one came out of left field, although it did get the cover to PREVIEWS for its first issue. The relatively poor sales of GEAR STATION and JUDGE may have meant the fear of lackluster sales for yet another CGI-enhanced comic, as well.
But POWERS had great buzz behind it. Yet retailers still under-ordered the first five issues! Even giving them the three-month delay between sales of the first issue and orders for the fourth, there's no excuse for the fourth and fifth issues being under ordered. Heck, Bendis and Oeming took a skip month after the first two or three issues just so that the retailers could catch their breath and increase the sales figures to match orders. (This isn't a frighteningly original concept. I know WHITEOUT used it as well.)
Why did retailers as a whole continue to lowball their orders month after month? They might just have their heads stuck in the sand. They might not trust what they hear. They may not be willing, or even able, to take the financial chance to order the extra copies. Or they may be absolutely stupid.
-- Or any combination of the above.
So, OK, they missed POWERS, despite the success of SAM & TWITCH from the past year, the rising sales of the backstock of Bendis trade paperbacks, and the rising high-profile status of Bendis' star.
This is an isolated incident, right? Surely, the lesson was learned.
Go into your local retailer today and ask for a copy of ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #1. See if they've sold out of that, especially after the success of POWERS. After Bendis became a mainstay on the Wizard Top Ten. After Marvel rolled out the promotional red carpet for this book. After everyone in the industry was talking about it ad infinitum.
After all of that, the book is still sold out and issues are going for $15 and $25 on eBay without anyone batting an eye. Retailers are sold out, even after re-ordering from Marvel, who promptly sold out.
What the hell is going on here? Do the retailers just refuse to learn?!?
Well, part of it for sure is retailer apathy. They would rather avert chances than risk success. Who can blame them? In a dwindling industry - one which is so poor my comics shop has begun to refer to itself as "The Last Comics Shop on Earth" in anticipation of the downfall of the industry, despite their relative success - who can risk the money?
How do we get around this? Self-publishers can order themselves plenty of extra copies of their book for quick resale. There were a number of success stories this summer on the convention circuit from people who sold out their runs of comics there. (THE RED STAR is one name that frequently comes up there.) The larger companies could do the same, in the anticipation of longer-term sales than just Day One. It still boggles my mind that until recently, Marvel only counted on its trade paperback program for short-term sales. The mind boggles at such stupidity.
There's a Catch-22, though, with presses both large and small: Who says the creators can afford to do print up extra books? And what guarantees them that there will be re-orders? If the book bombs, they're stuck with a couple of thousand dollars in extra merchandise that nobody wants that crowds the corner of their basement. They rely on their sales force - the retailers - to let them know how much of a success they are. If the communication there breaks down, the industry will fast become a frustrating downward spiral.
The ultimate answer to all of this lies in the creation of a new system of distributing comics. One that would allow retailers to take chances. One that would spread out the risk a little more. One that would allow comics companies to spread out beyond just the core market. One that would allow consumers the chance to buy their comics, or order them in a relatively quick fashion.
We need a system that would, in the end, benefit readers and, as such, trickle up the profits through the retailers, the distributors, the creators, and their companies. The best way to make more money selling comics is to sell more comics, at every step of the production schedule. This is similar to federal taxation. The best way to increase the stream of tax dollars coming into Washington isn't to tax people more, but the allow greater growth in the economy. The more people making more money, the more money they'll pay. Great base paying greater dollars.
Don't hold your breath. So long as Diamond makes a profit - no matter how small -- with their stranglehold/monopoly of the industry, you won't be seeing any big changes. If anything, it'll only get worse. I've heard stories that would raise the hairs on the back of your neck. There are stories out there of creators being blackmailed to buy advertising in PREVIEWS if they wanted to distribute their books through Diamond, for one example. Hopefully, I'll be able to give you a couple of hard examples of that in time, once the dust has settled.
MARVEL AND ON-LINE COMICS
Marvel announced in the back of its comics this week that ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #1 is now available on-line for one and all to read for me.
Marvel's President of Publishing and New Media, Bill Jemas, said on Marvel.com:
"We're going to use online comics when we have sold-out books and we want to support the next issue or the whole line."
In other words, this won't be the last time they do this.
Now the retailers get the chance to gripe that they're being undercut. Pardon me while I cry them a river. If you retailers ordered enough copies to fulfill your clientele's demands in the first place, you wouldn't have to worry about it! If you gave a book a chance or learned from your mistakes in previous months, it wouldn't be a big deal. If you'd stop being the sourpuss curmudgeons that you are and believe in this industry for half a moment, maybe you'd think to order extra copies of a book that's placed in Diamond's Top 10. If you did all that, then Marvel wouldn't have to put their comics on-line to satisfy the demands of the readers.
In fact, that's not really even the point of the on-line comic. The point is to make comics more accessible to a greater audience. Since most retailers seem content to service their rabid customer base and not bother growing it, Marvel is taking matters into their own hands. Good for them.
But, wait, let's look at the on-line comic some more, because there's a lot of interesting stuff going on at the Marvel web site for this one.
First of all, the book is present in Flash animation style. You see one panel at a time, click to see the next, and are limited to reading the first 13 pages are available on-line right now. (More pages are to come in following weeks.) It appears the lettering has been enlarged a bit to make it more easily read. The book begins with an ad for Wizard's web site. But keep paging through the low-resolution graphics and something even more interesting rears its head:
There's an ad offering the first five issues of ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN for $3 shipping and handling. The first three issues come in collected form, under one cover, and then issues 4 and 5, presumably, are shipped to your home as they come out.
Boy, I can picture the hell this will inspire from retailers. There are those who don't like the subscription ads in Marvel and DC comics as they cut into their sales. Imagine what this offer is going to do to them.
I'm not one who's terribly sure that comics' future is on the web. Marvel, however, is taking some interesting steps here to incorporate it into their overall publishing program. They're also reaching out to make comics as accessible and as cheap as possible. Even the recent announcement from Joe Quesada to drop prices by 26 cents on certain comics every now and again is a nice step in that direction.
By the way, how heavily do you think retailers are ordering ULTIMATE X-MEN #1? Any predictions for early sell-outs and a similar situation coming, do you think? It seems impossible. One would guess that the retailers learned their lesson from ULTIMATE SPIDEY, which didn't even have a DVD release of its big-budget movie coming out around the same time as the comic. Orders for X-MEN would have to be increased, right? Mark Millar and Adam Kubert are fairly well known names with proven track records. The preview pages that I've seen so far are really cool looking.
Somehow, the cynic in me just shakes his head and expects that we'll see this same routine worked all over again in a couple of months.
Bill Jemas said last month:
"There has been a lot of demand to print more, but we won't. Let them be collectible, the fans who bought them deserve to have a comic worth $20 already. How long has it been since a new company went up that much in value that fast?"
I don't know, but I know the values will drop straight down the tubes when you start giving away the first five issues. Even if the first three issues are just a mini-trade paperback, the values will drop. Plus, the story will be available in the ULTIMATE MAGAZINE project set to debut at the beginning of next year. (This, by the way, is a brilliant idea and I hope Marvel pushes through on this magazine for the long haul and doesn't just cut their losses should it not prosper right away.)
But if you're going to just cut the value of the comic down in the end, why not just print plenty of extra copies of the originals so that everyone who wants to read the comic can?!? Even if it's a second printing, there are still people who just want to read the story out there. Let them get to it now, before the first five issues are out!
Ah, but I'm rehashing stuff. To see my original thoughts on the decisions at the time from Marvel, check out Pipeline Commentary and Review #172.
In the meantime, I'm going to go throw up my hands and hope this all blows over. It's giving me a headache.
Oh, and pre-order all your comics. It's the only way to fight against retailer apathy and insanely silly corporate decisions. Then you just have to hope your retailer is responsible enough to abide by your orders.
One other oddball bit of business before I let this one go.
Here's more from Bill Jemas this week:
"Now, Marvel will provide this book to millions of fans who want to read it -- and we'll do it for free… We can't expect to build a franchise on copies selling to collectors for $25, but we can absolutely provide a great story to millions of Marvel.com visitors for free."
Quick show of hands - how many people truly believe that Marvel.com gets a number of visitors on an order of several magnitudes larger than their base readership? There's a vast difference between the number of hits a website gets and the number of unique visitors it gets.
ON A RELATED NOTE
Along with this rant, I can't more heartily recommend to you Ed Brubaker's rant this week. You can find it up on his Delphi forum, amongst other places. In it, he discusses why fans shouldn't have access to the Top 100 Lists or PREVIEWS information. It makes a number of great additional points on why this system is screwed up by its very own definitions.
Next Week: I don't know how, but I promise you there won't be a single Bendis reference at all in this column. Really. I'll try.