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.
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]