Only Nixon Can Go To China?

Tom Spurgeon has some excellent comments up about my BookScan Analysis, and I feel compelled to engage his commentary. This is not a Blog War, but I'm hiding most of this behind the jump for those of you who Don't Like To See The Parents Fight...

Let’s start with motivations, which works nicely as a “response” to numbered point #1 ("I know I'm grateful...It's fun to see how certain books did on the chart"). First and foremost, I'm getting the Top 750 out there, and if you don't like my analysis, in the words of the great "Scoop" Nisker, "If You Don't Like The News, Go Out And Make Some of Your Own"

The entire reason I bother to write that beast every year is because *I* want to see the bookstore data. We’ve known that data was there, but it used to be locked up in a black box. I wanted to see it, so I called in favors and got it set free, and my assumption has always been that if I want to see it, then others do as well. As long as I had it, I might as well actually write about it and expose that data to a wider number of people.

I’ve always disliked and mistrusted the few shimmering glimpses we get at the data, generally because it is coming from people with something to lose (read that specifically as “access to the data” in the main) if they get too specific about their reporting. That’s why we get ICv2 headlines that say things like “Watchmen #1 on BookScan for xth week in a row”; which I find to be more frustrating than illuminating. I mean, what does that mean in any kind of broader context, or in relationship to other things? Comparative analysis gives a much better picture of what the trends and things really are.

So, yeah, I want that information out there, and I want it out in a venue that it might attract some attention and be searchable rather than, dunno, putting it up as a torrent or something, where only people who know to look for it might have a chance of finding it.

I think that books, in general, are weird because it is very hard to get specific data about how well they’re doing – I love the existence of a site like boxofficemojo because it presents virtually any piece of information you might want to know about a film’s performance in a pretty easy to find format. I also like sites like John Jackson Miller’s Comichron because it attempts to do much the same for the comic book industry. Its major flaw, however, is that it ONLY does it for DM sources of information.

So: at my core the reason I write this every year is to give a chance for that information to be out, natively in the wild, and to be a part of the Historical Record.

I will tell you this: I’m not convinced that my analysis is really any good. I mean, if you have like 6 spare hours, go through and read all seven years of analysis, one after another, and look at how much my tone and methodology has changed. In year one, it is really about 90% Direct Market, and maybe 10% bookstore because what I was actually hoping in my heart is that someone else would actually take up the data and perform their own analysis on it, so that I wouldn’t have to.

As I came to understand, over the years, that no one was going to bother to do that, I’ve gotten closer and closer to writing something actually worth reading – the first 3 (I think?) years had entire “What about the Direct Market?!?!” sections that I ultimately abandoned as being counterproductive to the exercise.

Anyway, my motivation to release this information is simply that: I want the information released, I have a long standing and “well respected” comics industry opinion column, it seems like a good match.

But, I also have to think of what I understand about my audiences.

Primarily, I write for and to other Direct Market comic book retailers. That’s the entire point of these columns. Remember, TILTING started in the controlled circulation COMICS RETAILER magazine, only ever seen by 5000 people, maximum.

Secondarily, ever since I made the switch to the wider internet with Newsarama, and, current, Comic Book Resources, I feel like I have to spend a reasonable amount of time writing for the “lay” audience. Which is why you’ll see me over explaining things, sometimes (“What is an SKU?”, that kind of thing), because I want the layfolk to at least have a notion of what I’m talking about. More importantly, my “lay” audience is mostly comprised of folks who are really really interested in the Direct Market version of “comics”. That is to say, disproportionately interested in “mainstream” Marvel and DC superhero comics. That it to further say, I believe that 75% or better of the people who read TILTING know nothing whatsoever about the industry except whatever “common truths” they’ve managed to absorb, and repurpose to their own ends.

My tertiary audience is that of the “Decision makers”, and it’s tertiary because they have much better data than I do, have to balance the needs of a much wider range of participants, and because they’ve already made their decisions. The chances of my actually directly impacting or changing any decision made is vanishingly small. I’ve been writing columns for nearly twenty years now, I know that very very well. At absolute best, I can hope to possibly influence some potential future decision by adding to consensus (and, in fact, I think that one of my leakers gives me data for precisely that reason)

So this comes to Tom’s point #2 –- "Hibbs' qualitative analysis is so infused with this highly insistent defense of the Direct Market" -- yes, it IS a DM oriented column for a DM oriented audience written by a DM oriented participant. I literally don’t know if it is *possible* for it to not be “infused” with a pro-DM slant, given its genesis, and ongoing status. I write 11 months of the year in a DM-oriented fashion, it is extremely difficult to expect me to not do that on the 12th month.

In my “defense” (though I don’t think this is something that needs a “defense”, per se – because I think it IS extremely valid) not only do I specifically (overly?) point out my biases and directly ask for other perspectives, but I’ve made my best faith efforts over the years to become as dispassionate as I can be. Again, read the way the commentary has changed over the course of seven of them: it has gone from DM-centered to DM-“infused”. I count this as a victory!

Having said that, I have to tell you that in the Best Alternative Universe Ever, I’d rather read a 20k word essay on the Annual BookScan analysis by Tom Spurgeon, than writing this shit myself, because I think he’d do a much better job of it than I ever would in keeping Professional Distance. He’s a Reporter by nature – I am an Opinion Columnist.

Tom’s point #3, and the first of the “big, sweeping problems” is “I can't figure out who on earth holds the positions he insists on dismantling.” And I guess Tom and I just travel in different circles. Again, Tom does note people “in a difference-making position”, but, as I said before, they’re my tertiary audience. Because I hear a lot (a LOT) of misinformed, or downright wrong statements from both my primary and secondary audiences quite a bit. Now, I will grant you that “bookstores will save everything” was actually replaced in 2009 by “digital downloads will save everything”, and that my own conflation of the two may be at fault here, but anything that I wrote stemmed from something that I’ve heard recently as a continued meme.

Let me sidebar for a second and talk about my working method. Because there’s a certain amount of boilerplate that I only rewrite slightly (for instance, just about everything before I get to the actual yearly overview), and there are all of the charts that I’m just adding new rows to, I actually just open up the previous year’s column and start editing and rewriting. Typically I go into each section, add two pages of carriage returns, then start writing the new piece. After I handle a subsection of each section (say, “10 ten books over all” followed by “top 5 dollar books” and so on – though I don’t explicitly label those subsections, that’s how I write it, in order to stay sane), I’ll scroll down and see what the results were in the previous year, and add in any relevant comparisons (“such and such grew by this much/lost this much”)

So, because of this, there are sometimes things I return to simply because I talked about it last time. Example: the citation of L&R #2. So, there are a handful of things in any given report that will be “last year’s discussion follow-up” items.

Anyway, for Tom’s #3, I guess I’d say “I’m writing for a mass audience for whom a significant number still hold these views as not-debunked; and not really for the ‘intelligentsia’ or 'Decision Makers'”. It is fair to question whether that is right or wrong decision (or if I’ve over-inflated in my head the actual response) but that’s what I’m thinking.

Also, I hear similar kinds of things from new entries into the market quite a bit. I get lots and lots of blind “I’m going to be a new publisher and this is how things work!” emails, maybe more than Tom does? Admittedly, virtually all of the people who come in with those thoughts either get gutted instantly, or quickly modify their tune, but while it is true “Everyone that matters knew this years ago,” some of the people who will matter 20 years from now are likely starting their education today.

For Tom’s #4, ("Hibbs admits the numbers are untrustworthy in a lot of ways... and then compares them anyway and goes on to make sweeping statements...") I think there’s value in comparing two relative performances, even if they’re gathered by wholly different methodologies and are less-than-perfect measures in the first place, as long as you know what the limitations of that data are going in.

That is to say, looking at the number sold for Fables, Y or Sandman in Direct, and comparing as a percentage to the Vertigo Crime line, and that looking for that same number sold for Fable, Y, or Sandman via the stores that report to BookScan compared as a percentage to the Vertigo Crime line, and seeing that it follows basically the same pattern that the Minx line did before it, and drawing a conclusion from that… well that seems like a fair conclusion to make. That doesn't mean I inherently believe that either set of numbers are actually 100% accurate (or tracking the same things -- no not at ALL!), but that a trend can be perceived. Is that perception right or wrong? Dunno, that's why I put it out there, let's have a conversation on the merits of the argument itself?

So, I don’t want to necessarily disagree with Tom’s point, but to say that I think that I’ve handled it appropriately, and I’m much more eager to engage on the specific conclusions than on “Don’t cross the streams, that would be bad” as a general point.

And I think (repeat: think) that I either slather any direct comparison between channels with Weasel Words (“I would strongly suggest that this indicates”, yikes!), or I do so otherwise only in the abstract. If there are particular and specific instances anyone disagrees with, I’d be glad to discuss them. No, strike that, I would be ecstatic to do so!

Tom’s #5 ("...bookstore vs. DM argument takes over those sections even when it's not brought up. "), I appreciate his acknowledgment that it might be his personal weakness. And I think some of it is, because I’ve tried, continue to try, and will continue to try to tone it down over the years.

I like his questions, though! The answers are...

"Could this leave bookstores open to someone suggesting they have the next Watchmen in the form of some Green Lantern book?"

More willing to try something new that hasn’t ‘proven out’ in Direct first, but not so willing as to position a capey book that flops in Direct. ‘Earth-One’ would seem to be our next available test, as it was positioned as a ‘bookstore initiative’ as I read it.

"Will they favor the shelving of DC books for a while?"

Potentially, but of course, Chain bookstore shelves are ultimately For Sale, plus there’s a pretty big X-factor in ‘how many of these books are selling on Amazon, et al’, where there isn’t ‘shelving’ in the way you meant it.

"Will this make it that much harder for Marvel to kickstart their post-Disney purchase bookstore program?"

I’d think not; why would it? And those shelves are For Sale, anyway.

"Were stores stuck with Watchmen copies as the cycles worked themselves out?"

Unlikely to be ‘stuck’ that significantly, because I bet you $1 that result is as much a function of expanding the number of storefronts carrying the book in the first place as it is from copies-sold-per-store, and IF anyone was carrying way way too much inventory, and if DC did sales into bookstores even remotely in parity as they did in the DM, they were taking full 100% returns on that one book, as needed.

"Are they asking for new Watchmen material?"

No clue from me. Ask Dan DiDio.

OK, that was fun, and I wish the entire post was just that!

On Tom’s #6 ("I think Hibbs vastly underplays the recession."), I am not sure how so? And in regard to “And if everything must be a market to market dick-measuring contest, it also makes perfect sense to me that a market serving relatively casual readers is going to be hit harder in the first 12-15 months of a recession than a market serving the most devoted fans.”, I have to say “huh?” Or did you not see the sentence about the DM being down FIFTEEN percent, which is a LARGER drop than the bookstores? Muh?

#7 ("I think Hibbs underplays the effect the quality of books has in a lot of comics' sub-markets."): Wait, now you’ve totally lost me. You’re positing that quality of a work is the most important reason it does or doesn’t sell? Really? That’s why nothing by, say, Urasawa, hits in the Top 750, but Naruto is #1 in manga? Is he saying that Stitches is externally and qualitatively a better book than, dunno, Optic Nerve? (*I* don't think so!) I don’t know how to engage that one at all! Quality doesn't have but the most cursory relationship to sales, look at the music, TV or film charts, if you doubt that...

#8 ("I think Hibbs overplays a manga "freefall.""): Fair enough. Actually, if you go back and look, those 3-4 paragraphs are almost completely lifted from the ’08 report, because I felt it was still pertinent, but yeah, fair enough.

I very very much look forward to any independent analysis that Tom can muster, and, like I said, that’s what I absolutely hoped would happen when I started this 7 years ago. (Not just Tom, I mean – I’m always hoping for 4-5 competing analyses!)

As for Tom's "challenge", I will forthrightly state that I don’t envision anytime in the future that I say *nothing* about the DM or my own individual experiences. That’s not why I write TILTING, and if I'm not entertaining/being relevant to my perceived audience, then I don't expect to keep it. But I will promise to at least to continue to be conscious of it, and to continue to try and tamp it down if I keep getting access to the data (which is, by no means, guaranteed)