Monday, May 04, 2009

The Direct Market Fails Yet Again

Excellent post by Tom over at The Comics Reporter regarding the disaster that is the direct market the way that it exists today.
I know that Warlord of IO is only one comic book, but a long time ago that what's the Direct Market was set up to do: give people a chance to buy the one comic book they wanted to buy... It's one thing for an evolution in the marketplace to replace a high-end delivery system with something better: more efficient, with more choices for the consumer and greater reward to the artists. But whatever gets the chance to replace a system that's this broken won't have to be anything special at all.
No, it won't. The "direct market" as we have it now is a monopoly that is continuing to serve less and less the people who were the ones that had clamored for the market in the first place. 1977, and those of us who loved comics had to travel to 4 different locations to get the next issues of the books that we loved. (In my case, the 7-11, Guasco's Market, Stop N' Go and a fourth place whose name has completely escaped me) Getting specialty shop that would actually bring in the books that we loved as well as other things that we didn't know that we would need but soon couldn't live without seemed like a dream come true.

Little did we know that the eventual ghetto-ization of comics would mean a further reduction in the number of people reading them, nor would we know that financial hi-jinks o fthe mid '90's would lead us to the disaster that we have now: a monopoly in bad financial straits giving us and the retailers that we would like to keep around less and less incentive to actively order or stock anything new or different.

Same ol', same ol'.

As Tom mentions, the idea of a specialty store seemed like a great idea, until the people ordering for that store ran into a few obstacles: namely, the conservative nature of the standard comic goer (a distinct unwillingness by a huge chunk of the audience to move beyond the comic format and type that they were used to, which creates its own problems along the way, as they grew up... and the X-Men didn't, which led to the storytelling dilemma), the conservative nature of the usual comic book store owner, and the general rattiness of the post superhero market in the 1980's.

Part of the difficulty here is the store owner needing to potentially branch out to a new audience that will come in asking for what, essentially, Borders is trying to do by mere proximity: sow the rest of the world that there are a ton of comics out there other than Marvel and DC. And your average store owner has neither the time, budget, knowhow or ability to get to that public. And Diamond, the sole survivor of the distributor wars, is doing less and less to help grow that audience.

This is part of the slow suicide of Diamond. Shrink your bloated entity of a catalog down so that the is less diversity, less reason to get new customers, less choices for shops already selling the same product to the same customers week after week. Eventually these shops will close down, as there are less and less people to keep them open. Thanks Diamond, your smart short term solutions are working as well as Phil's idea to take them out of the 7-11's. Only the fall out will be faster, because this whole process is speeding up in this economy.

And because there are a whole host of other places that people can get their comics now. The fact that you're reading is part of that revolution, since i never would have had a voice in the old media.

So quit bitching you say, what's the answer? There are no easy answers here, except that the Direct Market, or really, Diamond needs to be different. Period. And the shops that can only get their stuff from Diamond have to be unhappy with the current climate. Eventually it will have to be different, there are simply too many different places to get the comics, and too many other possible business models that can come to exist, and the minute that one of them over takes the others, it will mean more comics for the rest of us, and a lot of pain for the small businessmen in the trenches of comic retail-dom. And, as Tom predicts, the revolution won't have to be large and noisy, but it will be swift in places, so swift that it will be like the newspapers: where suddennly the reading/buying habits change all across the board and those left standing behind will wonder what happened. And you won't notice it that much until the day that Marvel jumps in.

Now, Brian Hibbs from Comics Experience has joined in with a post over at Savage Critics that discusses consumers as well as retailers and publishers in connection with the Direct Market, as well as making suggestions that Diamond might want to consider. Many of which I agree with, but, as always, whenever I get into Brian's blogging, I find something to disagree with.
CONSUMERS: Honestly, a fair chunk of the issue is your own fault -- you, collectively, have decided that you aren't as interested in buying serialized comics as you once were. That's fair enough, and I Get It -- there's more being produced than you can possibly keep up with, and the Collected Edition is (nearly) always a better package: no ads, no waiting for the Rest, typically cheaper than its components, and so on. Like I said, I Get It.
As someone who does retail as the main paycheck these days, and not comics, I can honestly have a business owner's take on this: Blaming the consumer, unless, like with newspapers, they want something for nothing, is complete bullshit. The people are your lifeblood. They have the power as a market to keep you in business or in that new tent city springing up in the parking lot of Pac Bell Park. As every business in the last 100 years has proven, you can't tell people who want a new fangled "horse-less carriage" that should stick with their horse and buggy. Those people will want their automobile and they don't want the old product. Shockingly, there are few horse and buggy dealers on the 101.

Yes, you get it. Trades have taken over. So, no, its not their fault. And, yes, if you do get it, then you get to stay in business, as opposed to closing your doors, because you're giving your patrons what they want.

How to keep the buying habit you ask? Good question. Taking a look at other media shows that they don't expect the retailer to solely market their products. Warner Brothers will actually market a new CD and not expect that the owner of Bob's records to have the budget or time to promote that one new CD in favor of the other 87 that came last week. How do people keep coming back to other stores? With different frequency is probably the right answer, even if its not the answer that you want to hear.

I blame the consumers for much of the newspaper problems, but in this case, I don't blame the consumer one bit. They've spoken and the retailers might want to listen.

Look, saying that "alternative" and "art" comics are a lost cause sounds a lot like someone giving up really. You ceertainly have more press being generated these days in the San Francisco Chronicle (someone in their Datebook section really does like comics and comic book culture) by alt comics, even if it may not drive the numbers in to your shop that X-men do. I'm not a comics retailer, and i don't access to your figures, but i refuse to believe that given the very nature of superheroes (i.e. most people outgrow them) that there can't be something more to those sales, a sense that you might continue to build another audience.

Look, Brian's comments on publishers and Diamond slimming down their catalog are right on, but the reality is is that there has to be a better way to do this. So we can all get our comics.


3 comments:

Brian Hibbs said...

"Look, saying that "alternative" and "art" comics are a lost cause sounds a lot like someone giving up really. You ceertainly have more press being generated these days in the San Francisco Chronicle (someone in their Datebook section really does like comics and comic book culture) by alt comics, even if it may not drive the numbers in to your shop that X-men do. I'm not a comics retailer, and i don't access to your figures, but i refuse to believe that given the very nature of superheroes (i.e. most people outgrow them) that there can't be something more to those sales, a sense that you might continue to build another audience."

Just for the record, I do VERY WELL with "alt" comics... or, at least, I do as long as they're published and available.

I look at something like LOVE & ROCKETS, which, when coming out as a periodical, had sales for us well IN EXCESS of X-MEN. Now, in the "annual" format? We've sold just under half of the latest X-MEN.

Yes, I make more cash from that (well as a single item, but "periodical" L&R came out 3-4 times a year), but it directly means fewer PEOPLE are buying L&R.

We used to sell 150-ish copies of EIGHTBALL (that's well double, and close to triple of X-MEN)... but if a new Dan Clowes OGN comes out (especially priced as an OGN needs to be), that I wouldn't expect to sell more than 30 or so in the first 3 months.

Don't worry about me: I'm WELL DIVERSIFIED past just superhero comics, so you're aiming your argument in the wrong direction...

-B

inkdestroyedmybrush said...

brian -

very interesting to hear your numbers on those. Glad that you're diversified, i hope that many more shops are before too long, because we'd hate to lose even more retailers. You and james over at isotope do a great job on covering a wide range. (there was a lot of hopefulness in my line, "i'd like to believe..."). However your point about getting people in the door is a good one: you don't want less people reading love and rockets when the format changes, and yet thats what you have.

Somehow, on the marketing front, there has to be a better way to keep traffic coming in while the formats change, because clearly the change is upon you as a retailer. I keep thinking: this was a periodical market that is turning into a half periodical market/half book market. Does that same dan clowes OGN that sells 30 now, in contrast to 150 Eightballs, make it up over the print life of the OGN? And how long til it makes it up?

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