True Villainy

So this month I want to talk a little about selling comics in the Direct Market, and I want to talk a little about DC's upcoming "Villains Month" (which may or may not be actually called "Forever Evil," like the miniseries of the same name?), and I think these two will link together very smoothly.

Thing is, in order to get to that point, I need to give you some background on where my thoughts come from, so give me a few minutes to lay out the groundwork, and we'll loop back to that.

I've been selling comics for twenty-four years now in my own store. I have come to learn a lot about my clientele over these years, things that I suppose could be oddly unique to my individual store -- but I really think not. I'm in a major urban area (San Francisco) with a young, mobile, wealthy, and educated population many of whom are employed in tech, telecommunications, or other internet business. We're well-wired here, right?

Yet, to the best of my ability to tell, the large majority of my customers do not engage daily with comics news sites, with the larger "comics culture" on the internet -- in fact, the majority of their regular interactions with comics are coming into my store and seeing what is there on the rack that week. They may have some vague awareness of major events, or what the market has judged "hot," but not in the way that you or I do -- but, more importantly, I don't see any particular evidence that they need or want to be any more engaged than they are. They come in, they buy their comics, they enjoy their comics, they come back in next time, that's the end of it. That's fine and noble. Honestly, it is probably a better way to enjoy comics than the obsessive living with it that you and I do, y'know?

They're not like me. Me, I have read the DC September 2013 solicits four times now. I flip to Rich Johnston no less than hourly for the latest word. And they're not like you. Hell, let's face it, you're reading an opinion piece about comic book retailing! That probably means you're either a wonk, an employee of a comics business, or an obsessive fan. It's a smaller subset of the market is all I am saying, those who have the time and the interest in following comics news -- most reader's engagement is primarily when they walk into the store.

The second thing that I believe about a lot of my customer base is that they're not necessarily engaged in the weekly comics ritual. Certainly a lot of faces do come in weekly, but I find that it is at least as likely that some of the biggest spenders come in monthly or less. I point of fact, my #1, #2, and #3 largest dollar-spending customers of DC comics have averaged coming in every 26.5 days over the last six months.

This means that to the extent that I can market to my readership, where I can actually move the needle is either "on Wednesday," doing the best job to best represent the newest comics each week, or over the longer haul, I need 12-16 weeks to have enough time to reach my entire customer base as they filter through the store. If I want to reach 100% of my customers, it takes a great deal of time!

Direct Market stores, as a whole, I think are pretty good at the "this week" marketing -- the weekly product / FOC cycle keeps us disciplined about our focus there. Far fewer are all that great about the 12-16 week cycle though, partly because so much of our brain gets consumed by the weekly grind of ordering and selling, but also partly because there's not so many things that need to be promoted in that way to the entire customer base. Events and signings and classes and things like that, sure, but most stores don't do many of those, and it's pretty rare that you need to do much hyper-focus on marketing editorial events. The last time I did so, in fact, was the launch of "New 52" and the rebooting of the DC Universe.

I knew then, as I know now, that in order to reach all of my customers for an editorial change of that magnitude I needed as much possible time to start actually selling it. And in that case, there was clearly a tremendous amount of potential and energy and creative spirit in the reboot that made the actual pre-selling relatively easy.

That extra time (DC released solicits 2-3 weeks before "Previews" shipped, you will recall, because Rich Johnston was getting leaks and stirring everyone up) to get out the message made all of the difference in the world for my ability to market the reboot. And why is that? Because of the third essential truth about our market: Preorders are king, and are the single best tool towards profitability and customer satisfaction.

We've talked about this several times: the essential math of the Direct Market (where actual profitability on new comics sales comes somewhere at the 85-90% sell-through mark) makes retailers naturally risk averse. Ordering new titles under that rule is often akin to gambling, and it's a gamble usually made possible by the relative stability of the other ongoing titles. But preorders, preorders are money in the bank (well, at least if you do them right, with deposits, and permission-to-charge cards on file, and so on) and much more importantly to modern comics publishing (where every publisher over 1% marketshare is probably printing twice as many titles as customers actually want or can afford): preorders resist entropy and "standard attrition." Pull customers tend to remain creatures of habit, and are "sticky."

For me, there's nowhere I see it more than in my DC sales -- as I said, I was very aggressive in pushing the reboot, and promoting preorders and sign up to titles. And, in many cases I was able to double or better previous subs. And as the "newness" of the reboot has worn off and the "New 52" has begun to rapidly lose momentum, we're shedding rack-buying customers at a significantly faster rate than subs. So much so that, in my store at least, about half of the DC current issues are selling 80%+ of their sales through subs.

I also mentioned "customer satisfaction," and that's because mathematically, it is easier to place long bets the larger the "pile of chips" you have. When I order new titles, much of my thinking is in relationship to subs -- some works look like crap and I think "Subs +1," and some work looks like a huge home run and I think "triple (or quadruple) subs!", but for an average run of the mill title, double-subs is my base rule of thumb.

Therefore, the more preorders I have, the more rack copies I am able to buy, and the more likely I am to be able to satisfy that once-a-quarter buyer.

Finally, for this, you have to consider what the customer wants. It's somewhat difficult in trying to predict what content will be responded to: does the market embrace this character or that writer or this storyline? I think that most of the time it really comes down to sincerity. The market is more interested in sincerity than whether or not something is objectively "good." I mean, quality helps, certainly, but I think that the modern consumer is buying as much for creative passion as they are of clever plotting or pure craft. Sometimes we frame this in terms of comics "mattering," but clearly the market buys tons of comics that don't actually "matter" in any real way. But what you can see, I think, if you read the charts at all, is that books that have a focus and a creative sincerity fare better than those than don't.

I know what the serial-buying periodical market usually doesn't want, however: things that don't lead to other things. There has to be momentum, there has to be a true sense of "wait, then what happens?!", and thus the market is usually disdainful of standalone stories, of origin tales, of flashbacks, of continuity patches. Customers aren't looking for vignettes.

So that's how I believe the general market reacts to the broadest stimulus. If you keep most of these things in your head, then figuring out the Best Practices of how to market to Direct Market customers really isn't all that hard.

Now how does this relate to "Villains month"? (remember that, back at the first paragraph?)

Actually, I need to do one more deep background, but this one specifically is aimed at the notion of an event based around "DC Villains" and DC Comics in particular, not in general market trends.

And the fact of the matter is that this particular tool from this particular toolbox is a very well-used one.

That I can think of, we've seen villain-starring "fifth week"-style publishing stunts with "New Year's Evil" (1998) and "Joker's Asylum" (twice, in 2008 and 2010!), as well as the previous "month of villains" stunt "Faces of Evil" (2009). These things all have one thing in common in my store -- they didn't perform very well. All four generally performed at 80% or (much!) less of my expectation, and all four were ordered on the lower end of the spectrum.

Spot-checking the national numbers seems to show that the sell-in wasn't particularly strong either -- for example, it looks to me that "Batman #685" (cover-featuring Catwoman during "Faces of Evil") was the lowest selling issue of Batman that year.

When the stunts aren't directly tied to a parent book, they do even worse -- the second go 'round of "Joker's Asylum" in 2010 yielded only single-digit sales for this retailer. Terrible.

To the extent I can check on sales totals for previous villain-starring books, the totals are poor. For example, I have three Penguin comics in my database (and/or dusty paper cycle sheets) -- "Penguin Triumphant" in 1992 (15 copies sold), "Joker's Asylum: Penguin" in 2008 (9 copies sold), and "Penguin: Pain and Prejudice," a five =0issue miniseries in 2011, which we never sold more than 6 copies. So, on a purely historical basis, I can not find a single piece of evidence in my 24 years of data that suggests antagonist-starring-as-protagonist titles do especially well.

So, let's talk some specifics here about this iteration of "Villains Month."

First off, as is DC's wont, lately, it is "Go big!", and it isn't a couple of books doing this stunt, it is essentially their entire publishing plan for the month. If you are a DC Universe reader, and if you're not interested in antagonist-as-protagonist as a concept, you're out of luck for this entire month. To a certain extent, it might be valid to call this "'Don't buy DC Universe comics this month!' Month" for these customers.

I think this is essential to point out, because another thing about serialization that I didn't observe above is that it is always dangerous to break the habit for the customer, hoping they'll come back next time.

DC would like to convince you to not drop off, however, so they tied each of the villain titles to a specific hero title. For instance, this is not "Joker #1," but, rather, "Batman #23.1: The Joker." In other words, they're trying to play to (or perhaps "prey on") your sense of completistism, of your pokemon-ish "Gotta have them all," so you won't think, "Ugh, I have a hole in my collection," despite the fact that from the description of the issue ("The Joker has FOREVER been the face of EVIL in the DC Universe... but what led him on this devious path of treachery? Andy Kubert pens this early adventure showcasing the maniacal exploits of the Crown Prince of Gotham -- The JOKER!") this would not appear to have anything whatsoever to do with "Batman" #23 or #24, or even the "Forever Evil" miniseries being launched this month.

We don't yet have the data files from Diamond yet to confirm, but I am assuming that this also extends into "back end" things like the invisible-to-consumers series codes and such, so that DC is trying to convince my computer point-of-sale system that, no, this is in fact, another issue of "Batman."

However, there is simply not a 1:1 relationship between the announced titles, and their putative "parent" books. Because customers are not mindless lemmings. As noted, while subscription customers are almost always "sticky" in their buying, the initial purchasing decisions for them (and virtually every decision for the rack-buying customer) are made from the intersection of creative team, character and storyline.

That there is a fancy way of saying "The audience for 'Batman' by Greg Capullo and Scott Snyder is inherently entirely different from the audience for 'Penguin' by Frank Tieri and Christian Duce." And, thus, you can not simply replace that issue of "Batman" with that issue of "Penguin" and expect the consumer to be OK with that. Or the retailer for that matter.

Or to put it in a much more specific way: Batman by Capullo and Snyder is my #2 best-selling ongoing comic most months, and it is my #2 most-subscribed book as well. My paper trail of historical sales suggests that "Penguin" natively will be asked for by one or two subscribers, max, and that I'm unlikely to have a hope of selling more than 1/6th of an issue of "Batman" total.

There's also the issue of that aforementioned back-end -- I am going to have to go in and manually edit the series code for each of the 52 "Villains Month" comics to decouple each of those books from the "assigned" ones, because we (at least) have an actual contractual obligation with our subs, and it is difficult to not look upon most of the equivalences that DC is asserting as "Bait and Switch." At that point, then, I also have to delete the assigned issue numbers, and probably also have to change the physical title of each book. All of a sudden I'm looking at a couple hours of work all before I've even ordered a single comic book. That's money out of my pocket.

Which then means that I need to rebuild my subs from scratch for the month, which is not a trivial process to say the least -- mostly it requires time, as explained above, but it also needs equipment to do so. Diamond's "Previews" catalog is a terrible sales tool for us -- only 1.8% of our subscribers are interested in buying a copy (and it is a much smaller percentage of rack customers), so it falls to our in-store newsletter, "Onomatopoeia," to do so. The thing is, that tool doesn't have the space to solicit 52 titles from a single publisher at current specs, so I will have to add pages to it, increasing my editorial and printing costs, again before I've sold a single comic.

I wouldn't necessarily mind any of this if I thought that this would lead to increased sales. In fact, I kind of fell over myself to do similar things for the New 52 launch, because I could see just how much long-term good it would do to take those efforts. But here? It is hard to see how.

One major issue is that most of the announced titles and creative teams smack of "fill-in issue" -- plenty of names that I don't know, virtually no book has the same creative team as it normally does (I may be miscounting, but it looks like just two, to me -- "Flash" and "Green Arrow"), and a large portion of the descriptions appear to be describing origin stories, or otherwise flashback-set stories. Like that Joker description, above! Maybe some of them directly lead-in to "Forever Evil", or otherwise will immediately be followed up on in their "parent" book, but from reading those descriptions, it certainly doesn't seem that the majority will do so. What's the good of this month-long pause, then? How will that sell more copies of "Superman" or "The Movement"?

Strategically, putting more resources into a program with, likely, less payoff than usual isn't wise, especially if the reports from the first retailer roadshows are accurate that DC itself is "losing money" from the printing of the special lenticular covers.

Ultimately, because of the "vignette" nature of this event, and because of the creative teams announced, I am left with the sense that the actual content is absolutely irrelevant to the overall program. That, in some sense, it doesn't really matter what is between covers this month. But, we're in a content business! The reason that "Batman" by Capullo and Snyder sells so well is because of content. The reason that all of the failed books of the "New 52" got cancelled was also because of content. Content is, in fact, what we sell, and every metric and history I own says that this is not content that the overwhelming majority of my customers are whatsoever interested in.

Except... those covers potentially change the game entirely in another way.

Supposedly, these covers are hot shit. I've not seen one with my eyes, but I did see an advertisement my wife brought home from a department store with full-bleed lenticular movement, and that looked pretty darn spectacular. But the thing is saying to someone "this looks spectacular" is about as effective as dancing about a movie. Nothing is going to sell these comics except seeing these comics.

But I can't. Well, "won't," I suppose, because technically I had the option of getting on a plane and going to one of these "Roadshows," but as I looked at the expenses, I couldn't find a way to attend one without spending $500. (2 weeks notice during peak summer travel times is oddly expensive, go figure). Which is a lot for what was presented as a three-hour meeting. Likewise, I imagine that the overwhelming majority of stores also don't have the inclination or ability to travel on short notice and high cost for unclear benefit and, thus, will not receive a sample with the full time that they need to leverage it.

What this leaves for me is having to place an entirely speculative order for a content-lite event based primarily around which customers might be interested in a cool-looking cover. There's not one or two -- there are fifty-two of these books, all with a uniform design. Thirteen a week.

So, what do the collector's want? All of them? Just 1-2 of their "favorite villain?" Or will seeing $51.87 of new shiny on the rack each week entirely dilute the sales potential of all of them? I certainly don't know.

The sheer scope of the problem is overwhelming to me. I don't have a sample to show in order to influence subs, so I entirely believe that on the native sales potential of the characters and creators announced, we're unlikely to have more than a small handful of subs. Without an adequate base sales platform, filling the potential interest in the shiny becomes incredibly risky -- and entirely on the retailer.

For me specifically, I know how to order (mostly) for readers. I don't really have any idea how to order for collectors and speculators. Because I imagine there will be speculators -- this was preannounced with a fixed print run which would make allocations seem at least possible. And I feel like I am being asked to make a purchase decision for an entire line of comics from the market's #2 publisher solely on the evaluation of a cover that I can't sample.

That's not the business I am in.

Honestly, it's not. I sell stories for a living, not covers.

I'm all for doing things that sell more comics, and sometimes that means stunts and sometimes that means flashy covers, and all of that is fine, but it can't be the entire line. It just can't.

On an individual level, history tells me I should be ordering 3s and 5s and maybe as many as 15-20 on a tiny handle of titles of these. That would make my DC sales for the month significantly lower than a normal month, and not dollars that are likely to be 1:1 replaced. ("No Batman this week? Oh, I'll buy Captain America instead" or whatever). That would be a poor outcome, because I depend on my weekly DC sales to help pay for my rent and employees and telephone and whatnot.

If I could accurately gather preorders from regulars on the actual impact of the covers on the prior sales history of villain-led comics for their own buying interest, then we'd be fine -- I could just extrapolate from that what rack customers can do... but "accurate" is the watchword because they need to see the sample as well.

So the month becomes entirely a risk with no stability behind it. It would be fine if 3-5 books each week were part of this event, but by making it the entire line this is dangerously "all or nothing" in a way that I fundamentally don't think is healthy for the operation of the marketplace. Further, I think that the specter of a fixed print run means that a very few actors could utterly unbalance the ability to order for other stores. If DC is really "losing money on each copy sold," then print runs are unlikely to be significantly expanded past the current sales level of the equivalencies that DC made. And if that's the case, it would just take a small handful of large accounts ordering, let's say, 500% of their usual order to trigger allocations for everyone. Then, stores that ordered "the right amount" will suddenly come up short, sending their customers to the bad actors instead.

So, suddenly, we're having to order defensively, as well?

This is not what we're supposed to be doing. This is not the way we're supposed to be conducting business. This is not the way we're supposed to appeal to new readers or expand the market or help the market grow.

And if we're not achieving those goals, what good are we doing?

Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, and is a founding member of the Board of Directors of HYPERLINK 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. Brian is also available to consult for your publishing or retailing program.

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