The Retailer’s View: Event Comics and Ordering Abuse

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by Brandon Schatz

When you spend your days breaking open comic solicitations and marketing for a living, you begin to pick out patterns. A new batch of solicitations hit the internet, and suddenly your world starts to Beautiful Mind itself with floating words and numbers that glow as you drink the information. When I’m placing orders, it’s helpful to be able to see the patterns. Ordering is hard enough when you have to guess at the individual buying habits of hundreds of different people, most of whom won’t let you know if they liked a book until the next issue is out on the stands, and every little bit of help is appreciated.

That said, being able to see patterns can also be a curse. When you begin to see the moving parts and start to understand how and why they move, the machine becomes a lot less impressive. Suddenly it’s not some magic thing, it’s a series of wrote events. The worst of this ability comes when you begin to see dark clouds on the horizon. You know something bad is coming, but you’re not sure what you can do to stop it. Lately, I’ve been getting some dark vibes from Marvel and DC in the shape of some weird final order cut-off abuses. But first, some context.

For the bulk of the direct market’s existence, retailers have had to work in a system where orders for much of their stock are placed months in advance. For example, at the end of this month, I will be sending in my orders for books that start shipping in August. As you might guess, it’s a tough racket, trying to guess what people will be interested in so far in advance. To that end, roughly five years ago, several publishers started participating in a “final order cut-off” program, which allows retailers to adjust their orders on the company’s upcoming slate of books right up to the point where the books hit the printer, roughly three weeks in advance of release. Closing this time gap was, and is a godsend. More often than not, a book that hits the stands on a Wednesday will have its second issue up on FOC on Monday, and a retailer can take into account the books’ actual demand, instead of using the order they placed blind several weeks before. While this system isn’t flawless, it tends to work out more often than it doesn’t. It allows the patterns to ply with greater ease, freeing retailers to stop fretting over wild guesses in the face of numbers they’re more sure of. Naturally, it needed to be destroyed.

There are times where I feel Marvel and DC are at odds with their “retail partners”, and treat them with a modicum of disdain. I’m sure this isn’t true, but their actions often say otherwise. For example, I take DC’s insistence on providing the industry with a new round of lenticular covers as a sign that they think we’re stupid, and that retailers will buy anything if they wave their arms wide enough. For the most part, this is true. DC will undoubtably have their best month of sales in September, despite the fact that the production time on the covers had retailers ordering them over three months in advance, with no chance to adjust at a later date. At a basic level, it shows that the company doesn’t care much if a retailer can recoup money from the comics they’ve purchased, they just want the books out the door.

Original Sin Thor Loki The Tenth Realm 300x227 The Retailer’s View: Event Comics and Ordering Abuse

Marvel has adopted a similar tactic lately when it comes to some of their event books. Yesterday, they asked us to set our orders for all four issues of their Thor and Loki Original Sin tie in. The first issue ships in July, while the last ships in September. They did something similar with the Hulk vs. Iron Man tie in, and will be doing the same for the Death of Wolverine series. Rapid shipping books without the luxury of order adjustment. This is a nightmare. Not only does it circumvent the final order cut-off system, which helps retailers reflect a book’s actual readership in their orders, but it takes the old system, and makes it worse. At least back then if there was a four issue mini-series solicited, you would be able to adjust your numbers according to a wider range of sales data. You didn’t have to set your numbers all at once, you could stagger the decision making, take a look at where your customer base is drifting, determine if they were even into the event, and maybe have enough time to save yourself for ordering way to much or too little on the final issues.

In doing this, the publishers are putting their foot down and stating they are in the business of selling comics for them and not for anyone else. They are the only party this form of ordering benefits, after all. As a retailer, the larger the gap is between my final order and the comics release, the more risk I have to take on. How do I know the series will retain its’ readership? And what if I didn’t order enough to begin with? Will I be awash in copies, or will I be crossing my fingers that some back orders go through so that my customers might see the product?

When retailers have to deal with this kind of risky guesswork, it has ripple effects in the industry. Smaller gaps in ordering time inevitably leads to improved ordering, and improved ordering means a store cut copies from their order that wouldn’t be sold, and use that money to stock comics that would. It allows a shop to be more profitable, and better serve their customers and the industry. This is how things should work in a system where one cog needs the other to perform a function.

What’s worse is the fact that this is all clearly a test. Remember what I said before about spotting patterns? Marvel and DC will do this kind of thing every so often, experimenting with the delivery system to see what they can get away with, while still experiencing sales. These are test balloons to see if they can continue to build a system that benefits them more than anyone else. The unfortunate thing is that we as retailers often put up with it, and allow them to continue to leech power away from us. We place our orders for lenticular covers with a smile despite the nightmare that occurred last year, and the fact that DC had decided what the plots would be internally before handing out assignments to whichever warm bodies they could find. We look at the final order cut off for the Thor and Loki mini, and we shrug and plug in numbers that amount to “Thor + Loki + Original Sin” and hope for the best, knowing full well that despite adjustments made to approximate demand, the orders won’t stick the landing. We do this, and we do this, and we do this, and we never fight back, because we can’t. After all, where else are we going to get the product from? And hey, if we don’t have the product, they’re just going to get it from somewhere else, right?

The system is already broken. Comics are hard enough to distribute. The final order cut-offs were something nice, something that made the whole process a little easier – and slowly but surely, it’s ebbing away. In the end, Marvel and DC might be able to smile and count their money while they see sales on certain titles retain a greater amount of sales, but shops will inevitably be all the poorer for it, leaving them with less money to spend on the next thing – which will inevitably bring about the next short sighted ploy and so on and so forth.

When I think about this, I’m always reminded of the fact that the end of the world won’t probably happen suddenly. We like to think it might, because that would absolve us all of our wrongdoings. If the comic industry ends, it won’t be any one big thing. It won’t be a pressed button. It will be the little things that add up. It will be the tiny cuts. It will be things like this, and the cyclical acts it produces. This is not what I want. This is not what we want.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go place my orders for The Death of Wolverine. I’ll see you on the other side.

[Brandon Schatz has been working behind the comic book counter for eight years. He’s spent the past four as the manager of Wizard’s Comics and Collectibles in Edmonton, Alberta. In his spare time, he writes about the comics he likes over at Comics! The Blog and stares at passive keyboards and empty word documents, making secret wishes and bargains that will surely come back to haunt him. You can find him on twitter @soupytoasterson. The opinions expressed are those of Schatz and do not necessarily reflect those of The Beat]

Comments

  1. The same problem exists for online consumers who have to put in their preorders months before getting a number #1 issue. Do I order number #2 when I haven’t even got number#1?

  2. Glenn Simpson says:

    Unless something sounds utterly absurd, I tend to be very humble when making suggestions on how a retailer should do something, because I know I don’t know squat. But it does seem like some of the responsibility has to be passed on to the customers. To allude to what “me” says above, buying from Discount Comic Book Service, I have to order a couple of months in advance myself. So I know I’m taking on the risk – I have to order #3 before I’ve had a chance to read #1. It seems like retailers might have to get a little more formal with pull lists and feedback from customers on what they plan to purchase, and hold them to it.

  3. The floppy market is doomed long term…trades and digital are going to end the comic store…it’s inevitable…so yes, DC and Marvel don’t give a crap about you…why should they? You are a middle-man in a declining industry and they will cut you loose the second they can.

    Classic economics, aging customer base = death. And at $4 I don’t see a lot of teens in the local comic store…

    Comics are growing, weekly comics stores are doomed…

  4. @Alex – I don’t disagree with you entirely. The current model is flawed and broken, and the weekly comic store is a part of that. As for not seeing a lot of teens or new readers at you LCS, I’d say they might be doing it wrong. A comic shop isn’t necissarily a “weekly comic shop”, nor is your window into a store a good view of different stores… Or even THAT one. Some operate with digital and collected editions, and some make more money off of collections that floppies. Some use all aspects to grow a readership. It’s all a matter of choice and perspective. Either way, good shops will find the means to survive and serve.

  5. Torsten Adair says:

    One store has stopped stocking Marvel and DC monthlies, except for subscriber’s pull lists. They do most of their business as a bookstore, selling trades.

    Some suggestions:
    Offer an event package: Pre-order and pre-pay all of the event titles and get 20% off. Or… give the customer that 20% discount as store credit. The more the customer orders, the more money is placed on the card for future purchases. If they use the card, cool, you’re moving product. If they don’t redeem the card, you’ve made some money.

    Push slaes of temporary series to digital.
    Of course, this requires that the store have a website, and sell merchandise via the website. Of course, if it’s Comixology, then you’re letting the fox into the henhouse (Amazon can see EVERYTHING you sell). And your customer might cut you out of the picture and order directly. You can mitigate that by discounting the title, like I suggested above with the paper issues. Since it’s all pure profit, with no risk or inventory, you’re making money (after you pay your IT guy and hosting service).

    You could even have a “no event” or “no gimmicks” policy in your store. If someone wants to read the series, they need to pre-order/pre-pay it. Or they can wait for the trade, but let’s be honest… how well do those event trades sell? Less headache, less risk, budget can be directed to more promising titles / merchandise.

    If DC and/or Marvel cause you headaches, then work with the publishers who aren’t as frustrating. Open up new sidelines, and encourage new customers who don’t care about superhero events. (Start with local schools and libraries.)

  6. Glenn Simpson says:

    @Torsen Adair – funnily enough, in my blue-sky thoughts about what kind of store I would run, I was thinking just that – focus on trades, and do the subscription-service on the side. Back issues through a door in the back, keeping them hidden and tidy.

    (I had also envisioned Hooters-style girls working the floor with headpieces enabling them to talk to geeks working in the back to answer any questions, but that’s neither here nor there).

    Mildly curious about the “IT guy and hosting service” – I would imagine that if any LCS is going to sell digital comics, it would be through Comixology, where all they would need is a PC and internet connection with which to communicate with Comixology to set things up with logos and whatnot for their storefront on Comixology – the store wouldn’t actually be hosting anything themselves…

  7. “The floppy market is doomed long term…trades and digital are going to end the comic store…it’s inevitable”

    Heh.

    Y’know, for at least a decade I have positioned my comics store as a BOOK store — we’re EXTREMELY civilian-friendly, we strongly promote the book format work, and so forth and so on…. and you know what? We have exactly one book series that sells better than the periodical serialization in a time horizon of a year or less. ONE: SAGA (and that’s such a rare exception to about 20 different rules) — SAGA takes about 8 or 9 months to reach that level.

    WALKING DEAD? It takes about 18 months for a trade to reach the same sales that the serialization reaches in the first month.

    BATMAN? Three years in, and we’ve still not matched any periodical sale with book volumes.

    There are, MAYBE, ten names in the business who would not sell more overall copies as a serialization than they would by doing an “Original Graphic Novel” first.

    As for digital, clearly there are people who love it, but every piece of private and public evidence says that the market has just about plateaued for digital sales — just as it has for regular prose.

    The fact of the matter is that the “super user” accounts for the largest percentage of periodical sales; and most “super users” are pretty anecdotally clear that they prefer print to digital most of the time.

    I know that in my own store the rise of digital has done nothing but brought a rise in the number of people (including, YES, under-20s, women, readers of color, and so on) streaming in asking for the “real” versions of comics they read on line.

    It would be ENTIRELY possible to destroy the periodical market though selling lousy product at too high prices that is all interconnected, but when you chase people away from the hobby in that manner those customers are NOT going to switch to digital or trades. They’re simply going to leave altogether.

    There’s no sign (of ANY kind) that a significant number of NEW readers are being CREATED by digital — what we appear to be seeing is that you’re either getting channel migration (ie, switching from print to digital because of “space issues”, etc.), or people without a LOCAL comics shop moving to digital. But major metro areas with multiple quality comics stores? My periodical sales are up by almost a quarter from this time last year.

    Periodical print comics are not going ANYwhere, because without them digital or TPBs would inevitably have to radically scale up in price.

    Ask yourself this: why would ANY rational publisher want to give up a guaranteed sale that provides them with easy cash flow?

    -B

  8. Today, I wrote about how one big toy company’s disdain for the medium sized and small press outlets that cover them causes needless annoyance and ultimately, a scaling back of coverage. On that same note, Marvel not caring for the longevity of the local comic book shop will inevitably cause a negative reaction on some level, whether that be those shops forced to deal with Marvel in very drastic ways (perhaps an all or nothing policy) or, with no recourse but to continue playing the game, a slow scaling back of books ordered in favor of a more hobby shop atmosphere. A store has to do what they can to survive and if Marvel continually shows they don’t care about that survival, they will find their place in the scheme of things will be altered in a way they will have no control over.

  9. johnrobiethecat says:

    “On that same note, Marvel not caring for the longevity of the local comic book shop will inevitably cause a negative reaction on some level, whether that be those shops forced to deal with Marvel in very drastic ways (perhaps an all or nothing policy) or, with no recourse but to continue playing the game, a slow scaling back of books ordered in favor of a more hobby shop atmosphere. A store has to do what they can to survive and if Marvel continually shows they don’t care about that survival, they will find their place in the scheme of things will be altered in a way they will have no control over.”

    In this climate and the forced rising prices, would a group of local comic book shops ever stop ordering Marvel and DC and take a chance with just carrying independents for floppies-Image, Dark Horse, etc. It seems this system is fueling the uber-event mentality because it always seems like a logical ordering option ordering -wise, much like a bad/new Spider-Man #1 ordered at 545k. If they are going to bring down the floppie market this way, why not take a chance to control your destiny. Maybe its too risky but you can always carry that glut of corporate character product in trades in the back and bring the independents back out into the front. None of the corporate books are that good anyways. Just filler till the next event. Who has an itch to read Iron Man or Thor, seriously? Or 4 versions of X-men? And then have to find a place to store it. Fans and comic book shops should just nix event books in the bud like that silly Wolverine one just to show ‘em. It would be more fun to see Marvel and DC close up shop instead and stick with the movies. he comic book medium evolve to a better place and be more popular with the public and interesting again. That’s how the floppies could stick around, not just as wallpaper in LCS shops for milking addicitions to empty characters with bad stories.

  10. Eran Aviani says:

    The purpose of the local comics store is to service the needs of its customers. A retailer can’t simply decide not to order certain popular books. If readers decide to pass on these events books, retailers will end up ordering less, and the big companies might even decide to stop producing them. If people stop spending hundreds of dollars on exclusive store variants, the bigger retailers won’t order thousands of copies of a book just to have one.

    This doesn’t mean, however, that a retailer can’t affect his customers’ reading habits by promoting and recommending books from the smaller publishers. I don’t feel the need to “hide” event books in the store I manage. They’re here for anyone who wants them. I just make sure to let people know (especially new readers) that I have a bigger variety of books to offer them and am always happy to help them find a book that is a good fit for them.

  11. Torsten Adair says:

    @Glenn:
    I mean the whomever handles the website and computer needs of the store.
    Someone has to post content to the website (and Facebook, and Twitter, and Google Plus, and…).
    Someone has to design the weekly newsletter and manage the email rolodex.
    Someone has to make sure that the e-store is running smoothly.
    Someone has to make sure the POS and ordering systems are functional.
    Someone has to talk with the hosting service to resolve problems.

    THAT guy.

  12. The weekly FOC is the best tool we have now, and here we don’t shelve books that deny that system. We’ll happily special order any weekly books for customers, and the strength of Batman has made us carry Batman Eternal on the racks for a limited time, but any title that denies us a decent period of time to track at least an issue’s worth of sales isn’t racked. The bi weeklies are risky enough, and weekly comics overstock gets to be wall insulation awfully fast.

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