Why good ideas don't work. Part 2a

What will work in the Direct Market with Diamond still in charge?

If we decide to make a commitment to the direct market, if we believe that the direct market is needed for comic books to survive, then the industry must take steps right now to rebuild its very structure.

I believe that everyone would agree that we need to increase sales but more importantly, increase sales to new readers. As much as our little clique hates outsiders, eventually every one gets old and dies and if we don’t get more new, and YOUNG, readers in, the industry will fizzle out. We can talk pretentiously about the medium and how great creators will save the day blah blah blah, but that stuff is not going to make one iota of a difference to the business of comics.

The one big weakness of the direct market is the lack of “in your face” comics and a severe decline in impulse purchasing. To make a long story short, we need more stores. A LOT more stores. Nothing, and I mean NOTHING, should be more important for the suits than to implement business practices that will increase the number of stores in the country today. We have got to make it easy and profitable for people to open up comic book stores. We have to make it economically worth while for professional people, not the Simpson’s caricatures, to open stores. This means we have to take a long hard look at Diamond.

Diamond IS the direct market and in business, monopolies are bad. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that Diamond is evil (that’s Wizard magazine, a story for another day). For the amount of power they possess, they could be a lot worse. They could also use their power for good and they don’t. If we are going to keep the same structure, then Diamond needs to change the way they do business. This would take a substantial investment on their part, but in the future, they would be even stronger.

First, Diamond should be the Amazon.com of comic books and comic book related items. Their website should be the central portal into the world of comics. Imagine a Diamond run affiliate system where every stinkin web site could sell the damn things and have Diamond do fulfillment and drop shipment. Imagine every small publisher being able to do the same thing, not just with trade paperbacks. We would be in a lot more people’s faces. Maybe then PR and real world advertising might have an effect. Every time a paper has an interview with some creator, and there is a link to his or her site, if the story intrigues them there could be an impulse purchase. But doesn’t everyone already have a web site? Yes, but how many sell their monthlies? And this would also make every fan of every creator be able to sell their favorite's monthly titles very easily. This would encourage them to try to get publicity to help sell more, which becomes a type of viral marketing. Now it could be financially beneficial to be a Larsen fin head etc. Could Diamond make money on this? I believe the volume, and the handling fees etc. could make it worthwhile. If not, maybe an alliance with Amazon, like Borders has. I would prefer they did this on their own.

Second, they need to re-open more local warehouses (something nearly every retailer misses from the old days). The easy way to do this is to offer the better run stores and chains, sub distribution licenses. Again, the volume will make up for any loss in percentage points on the discount. If I wanted to open a store in Tampa, I could go to the Tampa sub distributor, open an account right there, and pick up my books weekly (saving on shipping costs). More stores would be opening, increasing the likelihood of more people noticing comics and stopping in. If they also make it much easier to open up an account with credit, even better.

Third, Diamond needs to provide “all ages” publicity materials and a rating system. I know the free speech people will be up in arms with this one, crying censorship etc., but movies do this, TV now does it, and if we want to be more mainstream, we need to do this as well. Nothing as offensive as PG etc., but content related. No store owner has the time to read every book that comes out. But a simple label that says, “may contain violent themes, sexual situations etc.”, like anime videos do, could save them a lot of grief, and help prevent some parents from going through the roof.

Fourth, Previews needs to be revamped completely, and trimmed down. It needs to be less garish, less whoring to the big 4 publishers and it also needs to be free. Figure out how but this is a necessity. Every comic customer should be able to get one when they visit the stores. Every browser who doesn’t buy a book should be able to walk out with one to reconsider coming back. But it needs to be readable and have creator interviews with photos and articles. Sell comics to the non reader!
Regarding the big 4, they already get favorable terms from Diamond; they don’t need any more help. Bring back the alphabetical listings, regardless of publisher size. Set up some type of reward system for smaller publishers to get free full page ads, maybe for on time publishing or winning awards in the mainstream media. Whatever. Just give all publishers a fighting chance.

Fifth, we can’t improve our business practices without accurate numbers. Diamond should come out with an inventory and ordering software that is given free to every retail account. It should be simple and link up to Diamond for very easy ordering and reordering. This would help the novice retailer see where he is going wrong. Let him or her realize that if he sells out of these books by Thursday, he under ordered. Believe it or not, there are too many who fail to grasp that simple concept. This would allow Diamond to post on their site real numbers for sales, sell through, trends, which can only assist retailers even further. Help the retailer, help the business. It’s that simple. Maybe this software can have the ability to run a slide show of upcoming product for the stores to display. Maybe each subscriber in the store could have a member login. They can input their own requests right there, to aid the retailer even further.

Or the publishers could eliminate their exclusivity deals with Diamond and let competition come back. Naah, that’s just nuts.

In Part 2B, what the publishers and creators can do in a Diamond world.
Why good ideas don't work. Part 1

Spend enough time on the message boards and you hear enough suggestions or ideas on why comics don't sell better. Some of the more common suggestions to improve the sales of comic are as follows:

They are too expensive
We need more all ages books
We need more female friendly books
The big two publishers, DC and Marvel, are too dominant and we need variety (less superheroes)

While I agree with most of the reasoning behind these suggestions, the proof of the matter is these ideas, when implemented, have never worked. Spiderman year one, by Kurt Busiek, sold for $.99, was well done and was all ages friendly and it failed. The Crossgen books are supposed to appeal to female readers and we know all about their struggles. If people across the board continue to say they want these things, from retailers to fans, why don't they succeed? It’s very simple. For these ideas to work, and they can, we need a fundamental change in the very business structure of the industry. It’s the direct market that prevents any of the above ideas from not only happening, but having an impact. Allow me to explain.

Due to the speculator bust and more importantly, in my opinion, the fallout from the distributor wars, we are left with a direct market that is a shell of what it was a few years ago. From having 5,000 plus comic shops in the country to in my estimation, maybe 600 legitimate comic book stores, we have effectively eliminated the possibility of any new reader buying a book on impulse. In fact, new reader impulse buying has always been a weakness of the direct market. When I was a kid a hundred years ago comics were sold mainly on the newsstand. There used to be this belief that the readership turned over every seven years or so. Now we are left with a hard core, aging, comic book geek clique, that is not turning over (maybe dropping out) and wants what they want. They are being serviced by business owners who are themselves hard core aging comic book geeks, who are selling them comic books written and drawn by hard core aging comic book geeks. And people expect things to change or have an impact? Now in the retailers’ defense, they have to sort through an enormous amount of titles to order for their store, with no returnability. And a track record of most new companies going belly up leaving, them with tons of unsold and unwanted product. They are doing what they need to survive. And selling a book at $.99 just takes up space from a more profitable product. There are some retailers who are smart enough to think long term, and carry a variety of product in their store, but the bad store owners outnumber them.

So what can we do? First the industry needs to make a decision. Is the direct market going to be a key part of our future or not? Do we need to return to the newsstands, like Archie etc.? Do we do both? Whatever choice we make, we need to have the appropriate strategies in place to take advantage of THAT MARKETPLACE. People talk about how we need more cutting edge creators working on the books. I would settle for less of them and more creative and competent BUSINESS MEN running the industry.

In part 2, I will discuss what we can do to save the Direct Market.
Welcome to my little journal.

Before I start, let me answer some questions you might have:

Who the hell am I?
My name is Allen Berrebbi and I have had a long association with comic books, both professionally and as a fan. I am older than 20, married and have two great kids.

What do you mean professionally? What have you done?
For several years I produced and hosted a TV show about comics called, appropriately enough, "The Comic Book Show". The best way to describe it is a combination of Saturday Night Live and Access Hollywood but about comics. Through the show I made several friends in the industry. I spent a small stint as CFO for Future Comics during its start-up phase. I helped launch it and then had a falling out with the owner. Then I did a short stint as Director of Business Development at Big Bang Comics (great guys by the way). Now I am working on a few comic related projects which I will reveal when allowed. I am also part of a local comedy troupe, The Damage Control Comedy Crew, in Tampa, Fl.

Why are you doing this blog?
Frankly, I am not happy about what's happened to this biz, but I got sick of dealing with the morons on a lot of these message boards. Then, through Journalista, I was exposed to some of the better blogs out there. I figured if I was going to spend my time sharing my thoughts, it should be on my own journal.

What are some of your favorite books?
I have no shame in admitting I am a fan of superhero books, though its not the only thing I read. I enjoy books like JSA, where the heroes are actually heroic and noble, and the creative team has a respect for the past.

What will this blog be about?
Basically, commentary on what I hear or read about in the so-called comic book news sites and magazines. As my friends know, I am brutally honest and despise ass kissing. I'm not trying to get a job writing comics and I am not shy about telling people what I think is wrong. Hopefully someone will listen or at the very last, get some enjoyment out of it.