One more thing about mass-market distribution….
The other day, while making a point about digital piracy, Nick Yankovec said that “…most of the stuff available is overpriced and not good enough.”
Yep. In response, I said this:
I think I've been pretty clear in all my rants that "not good enough" is the main problem with comics today. Price and other concerns exacerbate the problem.
Quality is key.
People in and around the comic book industry, and especially creators who aren’t knowledgeable about the business side, often blame poor sales on bad distribution.
I attended a Friends of Lulu meeting some years back at which the main thing being discussed—as is often the case—was the poor and declining sales of comic books, in that instance, especially those by, for or about women. Every one of the several dozen people in that room agreed that the problem was distribution. Except me.
People said the usual: If only the books got “out there…!” Why can’t there be a comic book rack in every Starbuck’s? The books should be at checkout counters everywhere! Why aren’t there more bookstores selling comics? And why are they so badly displayed in the ones that do sell them? Toys R Us! McDonald’s! Etc.
As the one and only person in the room who knew much about distribution and had experience dealing with all manner of channels of distribution, I finally spoke up. I started to talk about the difficulties.
To sell at the checkout counter you have to pay for the “real estate,” and that’s some pretty expensive real estate. You have to “buy the wire,” that is, the racks. You have to service those racks with your own field force or a jobber—the store personnel aren’t going to take proper care to see that your books, and only your books are in your racks. That’s why the National Enquirer back then had a field force of well over a thousand people. Compare Curtis Circulation, National Distributor for Marvel and many others, which had around half a dozen field reps.
Selling into Toys R Us or any big retail chain is difficult and expensive, usually involving the creation of dumps or other displays. They demand special, deep discounts. They demand special packaging. They set strict conditions for delivery. Then, the charge-backs start. Delivery came an hour late, not during the specified window? Labels on the boxes not placed correctly according to their specs? Displays don’t match specs you were never given? They send you bills for things like that! They squeeze you dry. Hard not to lose money…unless your products blow out the door. Then, after a while, they might start treating you better.
I never got started on Starbuck’s, bookstores, McDonald’s, etc….
The Friends of Lulu more or less shouted me down. Then, people who didn’t have a clue went back to expounding about the vast numbers of new readers that could be had if only the publishers weren’t too stupid to pursue their wonderful ideas about getting the books “out there.” They preferred their fantasies. They had no interest in reality. Didn’t want to hear it.
So, I skipped ahead to the part they really didn’t want to hear. To interest vast numbers of new readers, comics would have to be a lot more accessible and a lot more entertaining—in a word, better.
Shouted down again. They were all very sure that the comics they made, their favorites and almost all comics were plenty good enough. Millions of people would love them, if only they got out there! It was a distribution problem, plain and simple.
That sort of thing happened a lot. If a bunch of creators and/or other interested parties got together anywhere and the subject of poor sales came up, bet your pristine mint Amazing Fantasy #15 the consensus would be that bad distribution was to blame.
I hate to break it to some Friends of Lulu and many other comic book creators and others, but comics with impenetrable, convoluted, incoherent, badly written, banal or outright dumb stories and/or indecipherable or just plain bad art—sadly, that means most of them—are not going to sell millions of copies.
Distribution could be better, of course. Better distribution might do some good. But, comic books aren’t going to succeed in the big, wide world as long as they’re not good enough.
In answer to a comment some time ago, I wrote the following:
The comic book industry today is rife with creators who don't know their craft -- creators who are in love with their ignorance and defiantly cling to their destructive self-indulgence. That's the greatest reason for the decline of the industry. It's not poor distribution, lack of promotion or anything else. If there was a comic book shop on every street corner with big neon signs, people still wouldn't buy un-entertaining, impenetrable, rehashed, derivative masturbatory crap.
Ill-conceived storylines, reliance upon "shocking" or sensational events, dependence on gimmicks and marketing ploys, oppressively derivative material and the dearth of new ideas are all evidence of visionless, clueless creative leadership at the top and untrained, clueless (though often very talented) creators on the firing line.
It's really not the corporate execs. Yes, they want to generate revenues and increase shareholder equity, but almost without exception they have no idea of how to make that happen and, therefore, rely upon the comics people, from creative management to the troops.
Whether Aunt May dies or not isn't the question. If she dies, does it mean anything beyond a brief sales spike because collectors/speculators think they'll be able to make a profit selling the book later? That is the question. Back when, Stan and company won our hearts and minds. I cared about Spider-Man and the other Marvel characters as though they were friends. I cared every time Aunt May got sick. That's what good creative work does.
Sometimes I think that unless you're around my age and you experienced the total involvement we, the readers, had with Spider-Man and the other Marvel peoples' lives -- yes, they seemed more like people than characters -- back in the early 1960's, courtesy of Stan, Jack, Steve, Dick, and many other creators who had a clue, you just can't grok what it should be like.
If we as an industry now routinely created wonderful, compelling works, if comics were as good as they could be and ought to be -- and as clear and accessible as most TV, movies, books and other entertainment media offerings -- the audience would find us. Just as the audience found a wonderfully well-written property in a genre that had pretty much been confined to the fringes before, Harry Potter.
I stand by that.
Fish in a Barrel
In the mid to late 1970’s, the comic book Direct Market started to evolve.
The story of its origins is told better than I could ever tell it, starting here:
I differ from Chuck Rozanski’s accounts only in details, which are in the big picture, of no consequence. To wit, I believe that I was present for his first meeting with President Jim Galton and, in fact, played a part in making that meeting happen.
The Direct Market, embraced by Marvel and soon thereafter by DC, began to flourish.
Galton offered me responsibility for Direct Market sales. He wanted me to oversee a new, Direct Market Sales Department.
I declined. I said that the Direct Market business should fall under the Circulation Department’s purview. The creative stuff was plenty for me to deal with.
Ed Shukin, V.P. of Circulation came to me afterwards and sincerely thanked me. He said I’d saved his job and given him a future.
Ed, who knew the magazine distribution biz, but knew little about comics content-wise, or much about the budding Direct market, soon hired a Direct Market Sales Manager, a new position approved by Galton. His first hire for that position was Mike Friedrich. He vetted his choice through me. It seemed okay. Mike had done some publishing and knew the Direct biz inside out. Good choice, I thought.
Mike was good, but had a downside.
I had sold Galton on the idea of publishing graphic novels in a trade paperback format, inspired by what I’d seen in Europe. Mike and others had earlier come up with the same idea. Mike had a finished graphic novel, Elric, left over from his publishing days, ready to go. Galton embraced the graphic novel idea.
At a meeting—Galton, Mike Friedrich and me—Mike asked Galton to be put in charge of Marvel’s graphic novels. Right in front of me, he was trying to poach a piece of my job. Mike turned to me and said, “I don’t want your job, I want your future.” Ask him. He’s an honest man, he will confirm this.
Galton, who despite his egregious flaws, was a proper businessman said, “Jim makes the books. You sell them.”
I insisted that the first Marvel Graphic Novel should feature a Marvel character, and so it did. The Death of Captain Marvel. For the first time, a character died of natural causes. Cancer. Author Jim Starlin’s father was dying of cancer while he was creating this book. Did you know that?
That book still brings tears to my eyes. My father died of cancer, too.
Elric became the second Marvel Graphic Novel. Friedrich stupidly tried to manipulate the Direct Market into supporting Elric, in which he had a stake, while actively militating (pun intentional) against G.I. JOE, which he didn’t like.
As a result, Friedrich was fired.
Ed Shukin hired Carol Kalish as Mike’s replacement. He was feeling more confident by then, so he didn’t consult me. When I learned that Ed hired Kalish, I pointed out to him that she was known as a Marvel-basher. She’d written scathing denunciations of Marvel for trade magazines and fan magazines. He sort of shrugged it off.
Kalish did a lot of good things. One of the best was her cash register program, which helped comics shops get cash registers so they wouldn’t have to be making change out of shoe boxes.
The Direct Market boomed. Here is one of Kalish’s reports:
Interestingly, the Direct Market did not seem to be cannibalizing the newsstand market.
Don’t get me wrong, the newsstand market was limping along around breakeven. I wrote about that HERE. But, it had been going like that before the advent of the Direct Market. And, it was nonetheless accounting for the great majority of comics sold.
What seemed to be happening was this: The Newsstand market, with its many tens of thousands of outlets (around 75,000, I think) served by the 400+ ID Wholesalers in North America was continually bringing in new readers. Some of them became enthusiasts and found their way to the comics shops. But new newsstand buyers kept turning up to replace them.
Titles like G.I. JOE, Transformers and Star Wars helped attract new readers at the newsstands. Most people, especially kids, didn’t know or care who Iron Man was, but every kid knew G.I. JOE. Sooner or later, a kid with a Snake Eyes figure in his pocket was bound to pass a spinner rack somewhere.
The newsstand cast a wide net. It funneled wannabe collectors into the comics shops. In a way, the spotty, unreliable, inconsistent nature of newsstand distribution was a good thing, because someone who just had to have every issue was more or less forced to seek out a comics shop.
Copies printed for the newsstand elevated the total print run and brought down the unit cost. Larger print runs amortize the fixed costs over more copies, making each copy cost less to produce. (Generally. Of course, if the print run is astronomical, the savings level off due to replating costs, etc.) So, because of the newsstand portion of the run, the Direct Market copies cost less per book, and were therefore more profitable!
Newsstand sales also raised our total circulation, which enabled us to charge more for advertising space in the books.
Given the economies of scale and other benefits the newsstand provided, it made sense to remain in that market even if we were only breaking even there. Even if we were losing a little money!
At the end of 1980, Marvel published the first regular comic book that was sold exclusively through the Direct Market, Dazzler #1. It sold 428,000 copies. (The story of Dazzler is HERE.)
After that success, many more Direct-only offerings were published by Marvel and others.
As the Direct Market boomed, increasingly it became the focus at Marvel. It was a low-margin business, yes, but it was firm sale, and it was pretty easy to target Direct Market consumers. We knew what they wanted.
It was like shooting fish in a barrel.
Kalish loved it. Direct Market success meant success for her. She pushed hard to make it our main business. She wanted it to be our only business. The Direct Market was her turf.
But all Marvel was my turf. I felt that we needed the newsstand market. That, if we became completely dependent on the Direct Market, we’d wind up in the same position as when we’d been entirely dependent on the newsstand market. Up the creek without a paddle. Screwed. Helpless. At their mercy.
I spoke with Marvel’s newsstand sales manager, Denise Bové. Denise was in charge of our dealings with Curtis. Like me, she felt the pendulum had swung too far. So did our Curtis account people.
We came up with a number of support-the-newsstand-distribution ideas. I suggested, for instance, doing a newsstand exclusive. Why not? You know the Direct Market shops would go to their local ID’s and buy copies anyway. It would be a big hit for the ID’s, and maybe the retailers they served. And great PR in that market. Maybe get them interested in comics again. A little.
That would have been in 1986. At that point, I was engaged in daily battles with the President and the other owners of Marvel. The board of Cadence Industries, as “Cadence Management, Inc.” had taken the company private. It was owned by the seven of them at that point. They got rid of one along the way, and then there were six.
Anyway, they were trying to sell the company and were far more interested in the bottom line tomorrow than what was good for the company in years to come. Companies like Marvel are sold for a multiple of cash flow, so every penny of profit mattered. My battles with them had to do with things like their eliminating the pension plan, drastically reducing healthcare and other benefits…more on that someday.
Defending my troops, and for that matter, all the non-owners had not made me popular with the owners. They couldn’t get rid of me because I was a “key man,” but they weren’t inclined to go along with anything I wanted.
Kalish vehemently opposed a newsstand exclusive. She vehemently objected to any support of any kind for the newsstand. She claimed that the Direct Distributors and shop owners would see any such things as betrayal, rise up in anger and retaliate against Marvel. Why not just hand the Direct Market over to DC?
The Direct Market was easy money, quick money, sure money to the brass—not that any of them had ever set foot in a comics shop or even opened a comic book. To them it was about moving the units and collecting the cash. Might as well have been widgets we were selling. But, they knew the Direct Market was shooting fish in a barrel. Why jeopardize that?
Circulation V.P. Ed Shukin, both Kalish and Denise’s boss, kept his head low and his mouth shut. He knew which way the wind was blowing upstairs.
So, Denise and I lost and Kalish won.
I was gone from Marvel not too long afterwards, so, it was my problem no longer.
Kalish passed away in 1991, but ultimately Marvel arrived where she wanted it.
And that’s where we are now.
NEXT: Man in a Can - Another Review