Retail Weekend Fun II: Electric Boogaloo!

Right, now for a response to Tom. Again, his original commentary is here, and my response and his as well is here. Normally, I wouldn't turn something into a BLOGWAR! but Tom doesn't have messaging on The Comics Reporter, and I find his "letter column" kinda problematic (I actually hadn't even noticed the post and response until early today, to be honest), so I thought putting it somewhere when there's relatively open comments might be a good idea.

(Sorry if you feel end-runned, Tom?)

I'm going to try to do as little of quoting and counter-quoting that I can, just because it is messy and too internetty for me, but I might have to resort to it at some point.

More or less going from top to bottom, I guess we should talk about "evidence".

Tom seems to think that we need to attach some kind of specific numbers to this. I'm just trying to figure out both the how and the why of it.

In terms of the how, I don't see how we can do it without specifically singly out individual publishers. And I don't see how we do that in a public position paper without looking, frankly, like assholes. Further, it's not like we keep revenge logs where we write all our wrongs down. I can tell you that I am down (not "done" like I originally wrote, sheesh) a couple of hundred dollars in retail sales each year in the aggregate, of stuff I know. How specific do you want me to be? I had three different customers tell me that, sorry, they weren't going to buy LOST GIRLS from me (two of them preordered) because they bought it in San Diego. There, harm done. I lost at least two copies of BONE ONE EDITION, same thing. A copy of BLANKETS. Those are the ones where I clearly and specifically in detail remember the exchange with the customer, because those are big expensive books. There's half a dozen other ones each and every year, but I usually just file most of them in the *sigh* portion of my mental hard-drive; I don't recall the details, because life's too short.

I guess we could poll the membership and aggregate some numbers, but then I get to the Why? portion of it. Singling out specific vendors is only going to make them more defensive, I think, and I'm unconvinced that ComicsPRO has a large enough membership yet to even begin to present the full picture -- any specific number member stores can show is going to be under-reported by some significant factor just from that. And under-reporting a problem is much worse that not reporting it at all in a negotiation, in my opinion.

I'm telling you, specific examples above, that I've been done harm. I also believe that there's other harm done where customers didn't specifically tell me that they bought it at a show, but of course I can't prove that. OTHER retailers also will happily tell you about books here and books there they've been impacted by. What I'm not getting is why people (not just Tom) are questioning us on this. Harm has been done, maybe not massively towering masses of it, but here's a group of diverse retailers saying "We're harmed by this practice, please knock it off", it isn't just taken as read that we have been so?

See, cuz I think when you ask "how much harm", it seems like that opens up "well that's not 'enough'". What if we can only "show" within ComicsPRO membership, 20 copies of LOST GIRLS that didn't get sold when they were expected to. Is that "enough"? What if its only 10? What if it is only my 3?

For me, markets need Hippocratic Oaths too -- First thing do no harm. Selling in advance of your primary sales force being able to do so seems foolish. Can you think of any other business where that would be considered acceptable?

I guess maybe the question is that Tom doesn't see this as "harm", which OK, fair enough I guess, but when a customer comes to me and says "I am not going to take my preordered copy of this book, because it was at San Diego first", I don't see how else it can be taken?

Tom says "Also, to flip it around, are you saying that the publisher should sell $4000 fewer copies of Lost Girls overall to people not served by good comic shops because a couple of your customers may prefer to buy it from them directly?" and I think this is where some of the disconnect is coming from.

The issue is selling the book before it is released to the market -- people not served by good comic shops are STILL going to buy the book at the con, whether it was released AT the show or not, BECAUSE IT IS NEW TO THEM, whether, I repeat for emphasis, it was released AT the show or not! Every single one of those dollars will still be spent, there's no possible loss there.

In addition Tom asks "Have you ever been denied the chance to buy books at a con at a direct-order discount? Have you ever been lied to about a book being made available at a con?"

For the first, well kinda yeah -- Chris Staros flatly refused selling me any copies of LOST GIRLS direct, he insisted that all orders go through Diamond because he wanted to make sure that their orders there were as large as possible. Which means we were locked into that distribution channel.

For the second, the end of SWEENEY TODD pops into mind "No, no one ever lied/said she took poison/never said that she died". So, no, no one ever LIED as such -- but they've certainly committed sins of omission over the years where they didn't tell us they WERE. Which to me is, in effect, if not strictly taxonomically so, is the same thing. If you present a product to me as "new", I have (what I feel to be) a reasonable expectation that means that all channels will be getting it at effectively the same time. If that isn't the case, that's where we have a problem.

Tom goes on, perhaps baitingly to ask "Wait: so some stores aren't hit by this practice? Which ones? Why? Why if you have this information isn't it a part of your position paper?"

What I was trying to indicate is that not all stores are at all times impacted by every potential example equally -- MY customers are extremely likely to attend WonderCon and APE, fairly likely to attend SDCC, occasionally attend Mocca or SPX or NYCC, virtually never attend Wizard World: Anywhere. The specific and individual level of harm and concern varies for me individually with the individual show and the individual books that debut there.

Then there are stores who, say, aren't in the continental USA, or who only take preorders with prepaid credit cards, or whatever other reasoning there may be. Maybe they are in rural nowhere and were considering order 1 copy of [whatever], but read the boilerplate and decide not to, and so on.

What I do know is that over the last, sheesh, decade or more I've been speaking to publishers about this, note one has been interested in putting "this item may ship sooner to other venues before Diamond can deliver it" boilerplate on books they're intended to debut at a show.

Sorry, I'm getting really quotey here at the end. Tom: "I don't get this at all; are retailers really less amenable to being transparent about their sales practices because it might cost them a few sales and more amenable to eliminating that sales practice altogether and all of those sales? That makes no sense. Which publishers have you spoken to that indicated this?"

I think Tom means "publishers" for that first "retailers"? If not, I don't understand the question, if so then... I guess so? My sense of this issue, as always pursuing it as an individual, was that publisher reps (and pick one -- Top Shelf, D&Q, FBI, Cartoon books, and so on, all the "egregious ones", the ones where *I* see my personal impact from) was that I've always and uniformly dismissed because my concerns were unique as a snowflake to me and my individual business, so no, they weren't going to do a thing about it on the chance that it could hurt them elsewhere in an already perilous market.

But here's the thing that gores my orb, and probably doesn't touch yours: the Polite Unique Snowflake Brushoff that I got from Top Shelf was precisely the same kind of Polite Unique Snowflake Brushoff I got from Marvel over the late and missolicited titles. That's why we've got ComicsPRO, and that's why I believe in jointly issuing this kind of Position Paper is a really good thing. We may all be Unique Snowflakes, but a whole lot of us have common cause and common concern.

Sorry, here's where I'm the most internetty -- quoting myself first, then Tom now

(Also: allowing after-the-fact adjustments on orders generally delays books even further)

I wasn't talking about that.

Sure, but you can't withdraw the mechanical elements of distribution from the timeline. Allowing order adjusts is at least a month-long process from announcement to collection of changes, so doing so is almost always going to make a book ship later and not sooner.

I'm nearly done here, promise! Tom: However, my sympathy ends when it comes to advocating a system where people can't pursue whatever commercial means they wish, particularly when they're more than happy to reap the whirlwind when it comes to the results. I've never seen a publisher beat his chest in public that it isn't fair that you shouldn't adjust your orders to whatever you think is the likelihood you'll sell something.

First off, I can't personally recall any situation where a book has been made order adjustable after point-of-solicitation because of convention sales. I may be wrong, but I can't recall one. Further, publishers who aren't brokered are virtually never allowed to be made adjustable in anything like a meaningful timeline -- numbers are firm once you enter it into the ordering program and press "send", that's it, no tapbacks.

That's probably not important, really, because the first sentence is the one that kills me. Tom we're most emphatically NOT advocating a system where people pursue whichever commercial means they wish -- what we're saying is that the gun of the starter pistol should be going off at the same time for all and any channels. I have absolutely no problem whatsoever with Top Shelf selling LOST GIRLS at a con. I have every problem with them selling it weeks before me, however, to my group of customers who are naturally the earliest of early adopters, on hard non-returnable non-adjustable orders. If they started selling LOST GIRLS at a Wednesday night Preview Night, and the book had been in stock at stores that same Wednesday, then game on, that's absolutely fine -- the playing field is level. We're sure as heck not advocating the limiting of anyone's potential venues, just asking them to watch their timing so there aren't intra-channel conflicts!

Finally, finally, we end this reply with Tom's final paragraph:

(In fact, here's a question: if you guys are all in agreement on this, and the position breaks down so cleanly like you say, why hasn't there been economic consequence? It's been years. No publisher I know has complained that they've been punished by stores even one little bit, and if you're losing orders, why the hell wouldn't you make adjustments? Are we supposed to believe you're just all really nice? Slow to react? Didn't realize it was happening? What?)

I think its pretty difficult for retailers to determine which books will be affected by which publishers -- the attendance line up for shows changes and moves too quickly, and it isn't like retailers have any easy central source to figure out who is where on what days specifically selling what.

It is often also hard to determine exactly and precisely which books will be impacted, nor specifically by how much. That's because that publishers who do this are usually the ones with... fluid scheduling and release dates. Short of purposefully underordering every title scheduled to ship from February to September on the off hand chance that I catch the one they're going to screw me on... man that don't make no sense.

From my point of view as a retailer, I'm trying to maximize sales, not minimize them, so forecasting to worst-case-scenarios isn't a really smart thing to do if you're trying to make a profit.

Right, I think I'm typed out about now, and I'm sure you're all sick of hearing my voice, so I'll leave it there.

Everyone is welcome to chime in with their two cents of opinion....