Tilting at Windmills #282: The End Days

By Brian Hibbs

I nearly died the first week of August. I had a impediment artery in my heart and went into cardiac arrest; they had to shock me three times to keep me departing, and my figure literally flew in the air from the shocks.

dceased-1-oliver.jpgDCeased# 1 variance move by Ben Oliver

I don’t bring this up for sympathy( candidly, thanks to a big change in diet and rehearsal I’m quite likely already in much better shape than I was in July ), but more to explain how I have made months go by without any commentary on the radical changes in comics rationing since June. While I accept full responsibility for the state of my state, there’s certainly an integrated part of me that is considered that the stress and drama of the last few months computed in some fashion to my condition.

As any book of The Beat should be well aware, on June 5th, 2020, DC comics abruptly announced that they were going to stop dispense through Diamond comics, and instead would use brand-new “distributors” Lunar and UCS. I set that command in scare repeats because Lunar is actually mail-order retailer DCBS, and UCS is( was ?) Midtown comics. In other paroles, DC’s move was to take their# 1 and# 2 customer, and action all Direct Market accumulations to buy from their largest contestant. This is a moderately offensively abhorrent act for the average regional comic shop.

At the time DC said “DC has been analyzing its Direct Market dispensation for some time, long before COVID, specifically in light of sustained stagnant sell increment. The timing of the decision to move on from Diamond was ultimately dictated by the fact that DC’s contract with Diamond has expired, but incidentally, the disruption by COVID to the market has required DC to forge ahead with its big proliferation approaches that will benefit both the Direct Market and DC.” Direct and recurred a matter of what these “growth strategies” could possibly be were met by timed stillnes( and have still not ever been mentioned again, to this very day)

pull quote 278-1At the same time they announced leaving Diamond, DC too announced that they were unilaterally altering handout time for their concoctions to Tuesdays, rather than the traditional Wednesday, which had the net impact of starting the DM to lose a week’s worth of sales window on trade paperbacks and graphic romances, and to start a number of other downstream troubles like a shortening of the window for Final Order Cutoff on their periodicals. We’ll discuss the ramifications of that a bit later.

On August 10 th, the first wave of DC layoffs happened with something like a third of their editorial crew( including Editor-in-Chief Bob Harras) being laid off, but most critical from a Direct Market point-of-view, the removal of major DM-related staff including VPs Jim Sokolowki( “Ski”) and Jonah Weiland, and ultimate key-man Vince Letterio. And since that red daylight, the slasheds struck again this week, going rid of Adam Phillips, Stuart Shreck and Fletcher Chu-Fong. As I now understand that Albert Ching has been transferred over to digital, there is likely no one I’ve ever converged other than Nancy Spears who now has any interface or interaction with the Direct Market.

[ This might be a rational target to be noted that, from what we can see from BookScan and Diamond sales data in 2019 is demonstrating that the Book Market sold about $33.4 million of DC material, while the Direct Market sold nearly $162.8 million- practically five times more material than the book stores. As for digital, well, there’s no hard crowd, but Comichron guesses the total for digital across all publishers for 2019 as being $90 m, so logically DC’s share of that is going to be well below $ 30 m. We’ll come back to this, but just remember the numbers appear to show that DC makes significantly more money from the DM than all other sources of publishing mixed]

The jaw-dropping horror of this( besides a lot of good parties- Good friends!- being shown the door in a world pandemic) is the staggering loss of institutional and busines acquaintance that’s being give out. Between Ski, Jonah, Vince, Stuart, Adam and Fletcher, there’s probably a hundred and twenty years of work and information that’s going to be into the wind. And despite DC’s attempt to upjump a mail-order joint into a distributor, that knowledge loss simply can’t be made up laterally: DCBS operates entirely differently than the majority of the nearly 3100 details who buy comics worldwide. For example, Series Code data, absolutely critical to the methods the overwhelming majority of supermarkets do to handle subscription orders, has been a chimed, scrambled mess for the last several months; DCBS does not appear to use Series Code the necessary data for their customers.

pull quote 282-2Oh, dang, I didn’t even mention that a merely six months after starting to distribute DC comics, UCS( Midtown) abruptly slipped out from continuing to do so. While there’s not any strong reporting on the subject( and there’s genuinely a lot of really terrible sourcing out there !), it resounds to me that UCS removed DC , not the other way round. Distribution is a hard game in the first place, with razor thin margins, and it seems strongly unlikely to me that Midtown could afford to pay New York City’s payments, or Minimum wages of $15/ hour and remain rewarding on the fraction of sales of the# 2 comic publisher, specially when neither Lunar nor UCS had any meaningful percentage of DC TPs in stock at any time, entailing they’re making roughly alone from sales of periodical comics alone.

Honestly, given the modernizes that have to be made in packing material, staffing, storage, etc, I’m not even sure how DCBS( Lunar) is obligating it work on Fort Wayne Indiana’s $ 7.25 MW, but at least the math is a smidge more tolerable there from the cost of living/ equipment. The $500 monthly minimum lineup that DCBS is now implementing now that they’re the monopoly DC periodical distributor probably helps too.

Anyway, it’s been a lot of changes- damn, can you imagine having to change distribution roots for a single product line up to three times in a nine-month period?- and nothing of them of any meaningful benefit to the average making retailer. I can personally think of literally values of stores that have publicly announced they’re trimming back or even cutting out DC comics because of these changes, and even those of us who are fighting it through are extremely hamstrung by cumbersome and unfriendly dictating and reordering implements. Countless retailers are deploring that backend paperwork isn’t being handled, or are being handled incorrectly. And many of us simply don’t want to made any additional penny into the coffers of our# 1 entrant in the market, and genuinely and intensely resent every time we’re being asked to spend with them. All of this uncertainly and chaos is directly and clearly expenditure sales by all levels of the industry.

But how could it not have ended up like this? History couldn’t maybe have been clearer.

A Quick Aside to discuss Comics History 😛 TAGEND

They say that those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it, so we need to go back twenty 5 year to 1995 where the Ron Perelman-ran Marvel Entertainment Group decided to try and vertically integrate and returning distribution in-house by obtaining big regional distributor its first year before, and then trying to get Heroes World to nationally share all Marvel comics.

Back then there were a lot of comics distributors, and a lot of comic dispensation warehouses across the country( Diamond and Capital City alone had around twenty each as I cancel ), but removing the Jenga piece of Marvel unexpectedly attained the whole stack collapse because losing a third or more of your income overnight is hard for any business to survive, and spread was very shakily financed back then.

Worse still, Heroes World couldn’t handle the job! They vanished from a very respected, but very regional small distributor, to trying to doing National( and International ?) dissemination essentially overnight. Arrangements that worked when you were servicing a small percentage of storages unexpectedly didn’t scale well( or at all !) and they simply couldn’t handle the requirements of the job as it increased. Lineups wouldn’t fill accurately, legislation was a sad joke, they couldn’t keep up on demand, etc etc. Places started going out of business because HW was doing such a cruel position. The contributed expenses of shipping from New Jersey, and the time sink that HW now became shrivel store’s boundaries dramatically, and it didn’t help that the 1995 Marvel lineup was a bit of a clunker as well.

DC at this moment, “ve seen how” dubious the majority of members of the distributors were, and decided it needed to pick a single beginning to work through: Diamond Comics- in fact, at the time DC’s contract even included an option to purchase Diamond in a number of circumstances, as a hedge.

Naturally, DC’s picking Diamond exactly accelerated the deaths among other distributors- they’d already lost a third of their business from Marvel and Heroes World, and here became another one-quarter. Ow. A few tribes tried to stick it out, Capital City cleared it almost one year, but eventually even they descended. Diamond was now the effective monopoly in the rationing of periodical comics.

If DC had simply opted not to act, the problem would have resolved itself quickly, because HW folded, and Marvel returned to now-the-only-choice-left of Diamond in 1997.

Ironically, the DC of 2020, apparently not being interested in their own history was suddenly really concerned about having a sole source being their distributor …. but the part reason that this was the state of affairs was because of DC’s decision in 1995!

pull quote 282-3Here’s the thing, even if the potential COVID-shutdown bottleneck for DC periodicals today was a good enough reason to throw away a relationship over a quarter-century long( and the downstream relationships between DC and retailers that occurred from that ), DC has left themselves in a position perilously close to the HW one- reports are hot that DCBS/ Lunar is having a really hard time scale up now that Midtown/ UCS walked away from the table, and, even in “the worlds largest” altruistic read, Lunar is providing a fraction of the services that Diamond was able to. Due to multiple beginnings, shipping costs are up substantially for countless, and worse still, it’s began a lot of retailers to fall out of the “hundred weight” category they used to be sent to under Diamond, so that carrying has gone up as well. Diamond has invested millions of dollars to see Olive Branch a State-of-the-Art warehouse– it’s hard to see Lunar/ DCBS even being a fraction of that.

And, since UCS/ Midtown lowered out, DC is now left with an even worse potential shutdown bottleneck- at least Diamond had more than one storehouse, Lunar/ DCBS only has one that I can see, and Indiana is looking to me as not doing great with COVID.

Let’s introduced that digression, though, and return to the machinists of publicizing, of which DC comics is at least a $226 million dollar annual business: $162.8 million in Direct Market Sales, $33.4 million in bookstore marketings, and something well south of $30 m in digital. There’s a ton of sales that aren’t reflected in those lists, of course: while it will include the TPs and GNs sold through WalMart, et al( because they report to BookScan ), it doesn’t appear to include any of the periodical comics sold there , nor will it have the bulk of educational auctions, since those marketings aren’t being sourced through retailers( generally speaking ). It’s also genuinely unlikely to consider any auctions through direct-to-consumer roots like, off the top of my principal, Scholastic Book Fairs run at class. It won’t have any “custom publishing” in in- like where they make a deal with, dunno, Snickers or something, to stimulate promotional comics.[ Journalists note: these quantities also do not include sales to libraries, which are way down in COVID goes .] There’s a few smaller pails here and there it is missing as well, but overall, I would suggest that money from producing alone might around $300 million yearly? Again: the prodigious majority of that comes from the Direct Market.

However, this is a “rounding error” for Warner Bros, when a single movie like “The Joker” grossed well over a billion dollars.

I candidly don’t know what licensing returns in( Batman on t-shirts or Wonder Woman Underoos or whatever ), though I are mostly expect it’s a tolerable several of publishing itself, perhaps triple-ish?- nor do I well known such incomes are booked today, whether against DC’s volumes or Warner Bros- but back in the day at least, based on conversations with ex-executives, publicizing “mustve been” self-sufficient in and of itself.

On the other hand, AT& T, the parent company of DC and WB, is carrying almost $ 169 billion( with a “B” !) in debt

DC is currently run by Pam Lifford, whose designation is “President of Global Brands and Experiences”. This title should devote a rational clue as to how Ms. Lifford reputes of DC: as a “brand and experiences”, rather than as a publisher. The things one does to manage a “brand and experiences” are pretty altogether foreign to what one needs to do to successfully be a publisher of content, and a lot of the expressed reflecting appears to be based on reasonings that sound great in business school, but don’t actually coincide the on-ground reality of how and why people buy diaries and comics.

pull quote 282-4There’s not really much direct-from-the horse’s mouth announcements about how DC plans to position themselves, the closest thing is Jim Lee’s interview at the Hollywood Reporter in August: “You’ll unquestionably picture more international material. You’re going to see more digital material. When you talk about changing our business, both physical and digital, to me the possibilities of are world-wide. That’s what we’ll be focusing on.” And certainly, the punditry thinks that DC’s plan is 1) more digital-first/ merely, 2) greater push for book format material( Original Graphic Novels, and so on ), and 3) looking for more moves to the “newsstand”- reduction- “Mass Market”, all of that coming with a dramatically smaller focus on the Direct Market( which drives the largest portion of their sales satisfy never forget)

This here is where I need to make an observation that I am sickened I have to: business and grocery violences follow logical and traceable decorations, and time demanding a thing to happen usually won’t make it happen without absurdly hard work. Or, perhaps, to word it a more figurative route 😛 TAGEND

Gravity is a Law , not merely a Friendly Suggestion

Let’s go through those bullet-pointed business one at a time to make sure you understand the counter-factuals here, and let’s start with “Digital”.

Digital comics are, economically, a joke. And not even a particularly funny one at that. For well more than ten years virtually every publisher has really really genuinely tried to reach digital a “thing”, but every section of exhibit was of the view that while you can get people to be addressed digital comics, you simply can not get a meaningful number of people who are interested in paying for them in a regular and dependable manner. Comichron and ICv2 peg digital comics, all digital comics from all publishers, at roughly $90 million in annual auctions- and that figure hasn’t changing meaningfully whatsoever in multiple years of tracking.

I’ve hitherto to find any comic book publisher who was of the view that digital marketings alone are enough to keep brand-new material being produced, and even the books that are touted as great successes in digital( DC’s “Injustice” might be one) became financially viable simply after the engrave figures are added in.

pull quote 282-5On a theoretical tier I think there are both internal and external reasons for this. For example, I think that the quality overture of paid under a digital good that you do not own, or even ascertain, is extremely low. “All you can eat” schemes( repute Netflix or Spotify ?) are more rational, but no one wants to pay almost anything for individual parts of work in anything other than physical media, because it can all be taken away from you with a few cases sounds of a mouse. I also think the mechanical aspects of reading comics on the most frequent devices are extremely poor. Exceedingly few people have access to full-size screens in the same aspect fractions as comics, and decipher long-form work on, say, your telephone, is simply an abominable know-how. If you have several hundred dollars to invest in a large reader then it becomes less abominable, but people who are willing to do that for comics appear to be only a insignificant subset of folks.

I likewise firmly and emphatically believe that while comics may be, as Scott McCloud situated it “juxtaposed pictorial and other portraits in deliberate cycle, intended to convey information and/ or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer”, that the actual thing that performs comics what they are is not, in fact, private individuals bodies/ likeness that make up the comic, but the channels between members of the panel instead, because that’s where the audience living and interacts. The informational content of a PAGE of comics are equally important, if not more so, than the individual PANELS contained within, so that when you’re not receiving the entire sheet as a whole( which is nearly impossible on a phone-size interface ), you’re not actually receiving comics as such.

Obviously, there is a contingent of folks who will disagree- folks who have boundary event problems( say vision issues, or storage gap concerns, or even just “I had enough money to sink into this to buy that 20 inch screen just to read comics” folks ), but the numbers say they’re in the vast minority of people- and a number that, most importantly, is not large enough to support the creation of material all on their own in a way that repays any developer for their time.

I’ll add one more wrinkle on digital, one that mostly applies to DC and Marvel, and it is that I have come to the conclusion over the years that people don’t like “superheroes” in and of and for themselves alone- rather, what parties genuinely enjoy about the Marvel and DC macrocosms is the soap opera nature of it. They like that Spider-Man and Iron Man and Captain America all “live in the same world”, and they like the continuity that can be built up between those individual narratives to create a greater whole than private individuals roles. And one of the ways people discover the evaluate they receives from these storeys, is that the legends “count”, that the continuity the questions and includes up to something. And that’s one of the major reasons that what we’d call the “mainstream of continuity” in comics sells actually abysmally for Marvel and DC while it’s the “off brand” material( like, say, “Injustice”) that tends to do considerably better in digital form. That to tell you, unless it is released in a physical flesh as its primary exhaust, it isn’t “true”. And while that works just fine for “non-continuity” floors like “Injustice”, if a Batman comic isn’t released first into the physical collector’s market, it simply doesn’t “count” and will merely sell a tiny fraction to the hardcore base that is buying the majority of publications released.

All of these things together show why, as a general rule, digital comics tend to sell single-digit percentages of what their book equivalents can do. And why any kind of “digital first” strategy is almost certainly doomed to fail before it even gets out of the barrier: merely a subset of the subset of the subset of people who read comics( or speak for gratification at all !) are going to buy into the format whatsoever.

But what about the book market? You’ve read countless headlines stating that journal marketings are climbing, and the book collects are posed to be a bigger and bigger and bigger slice of the pie, etc, right? I’ve literally been advancing the importance of book format material and “GNs in the bookstore” longer than the average career of a DC executive these days, and I’ve written the annual overlook of BookScan for almost two decades now, and satisfy give my message when I say that bookstores and graphic novels are an incredibly important market, but that the math isn’t saying what the headlines appear to imply.

First and foremost, the single-stream revenue from an “original graphic novel”( non serialized) can be enormous( specially if you are a Raina Telgemeier or Dav Pilkey ), but that the great majority of such records are unlikely to earn their makes any more income then their advanced. I’m not even thoroughly convinced that most OGN makers are even earning back their advance in the first place. And, most importantly, without page frequencies like “traditional” comics publishers offer, there’s a super-great chance that your norm GN maker is manufacturing less than minimum wages to determine that book.

One of the most fantastic things that periodical comics do is that they amortize costs and generate multiple revenue streams in order to perpetuate themselves. To give you the clearest form of this that I can, let’s make “the most popular” DC superhero, Batman, and look at 2019 BookScan auctions. There were forty different books released after 2019 with “Batman” as the first oath in the title in BookScan chassis this year. The single best-seller was “Batman: Damned” which sold all of 14, 156 duplicates into the book market. The second best seller was the ninth capacity of Tom King’s run, which sold, ugh, 3,426 facsimiles. The median sale for these forty assortments is all of 1220 facsimiles. And this is their more popular character.

Conversely ICv2 says “Batman: Damned”# 2 sold 144 k fakes into the Direct Market. Tom King’s run on the monthly averaged north of 100k each.

Almost certainly, “Batman: Damned” would not be profitable alone as an OGN released to the bookstores. Tom King’s run would have been a steadfast money loser. And, again, this is the most popular character, with some of their most popular creators.

“But But! ” someone is starting to yell, “I Heard that’ Raven’ OGN did amazing in the bookstores! ”- and, sure thing, it sold roughly 43 k follows, which for certain obligated fund … but the next best-selling Zoom or Ink book sold a naked 8200 reproduces, and the one after that? Below 5k. In information, making it as an average, the average Zoom or Ink OGN sold 4622 prints, and is you don’t include “Raven” in there, that quantity slips to a likely unprofitable 2700 copies.

A thing I have learned in decades of watching the bookstore lists: that grocery isn’t looking to buy forty different “Batman” books every year- they don’t even want forty “superhero” notebooks every year. They crave maybe five or six at the most. But in order to be a publisher, you pretty much must produce forty in order to pay your staff, your lease, your overhead.

The terrible and hard truth about producing is that most bibles( include prose in this too !) never make any money whatsoever- it’s a handful of claims at the top of the frontlist that generate the majority of your overhead, and everything else, you’re precisely said that he wished to not lose too much.

This is the actual and sincere wonder of the Direct Market: a functioning market for periodicals and serialization that repays its own way, tells architects make an actual living from production of work, and patronizes an international network of independent supermarkets at the same time! There’s no other busines like this in America, and, to the best of my ability to ascertain, both DC and Marvel are entirely rewarding in this pursuit really from the process of drawing up publications themselves- the books are gravy.

This market is extremely unlikely to ever be “replaced” by digital, because it is the nature of the weekly exhaust schedule and the nature of the comics place as “dedicated make showcase” that is driving the sales more than the content itself.

Giving that dedicated busines up for the no-evidence , no-success premise that you can replace it somehow with a thing built in entirely different ways seems like a real “Underpants Gnome” imagine. Step one: steal the underpants, step two: ???, step three: Profit! exactly doesn’t work, because for Pete’s sake, Gravity Is A Law, Not simply a Friendly Suggestion!

pull quote 282-6It’s that third bullet top, that somehow we’re going to get periodical comics back on the newsstand, into the mass market, which is the most laughter thought of all. First and foremost, the newsstand doesn’t exist in any practical sense any longer- the thousands of independent convenience store and pharmacies that drove that are mostly all out of business, replaced by giant bonds. These monstrous series care solely and exclusively about profit-per-square-foot. Decades ago they long ago calculated they could make more money selling Anything But Comics in that same cavity. Every attempt at changing this over the years has appeared to work far below the high expectations these bonds have: The DC/ Walmart pact for periodicals was stopped by WalMart, I’m told , not DC. WalMart was apparently thrilled by the sales of the first issues, but soured fast when the later matters tanked out- it seems the sales of the first issues were actually driven by adventurers on the Direct Market area, ooops.

Look, I’m the first is to say the DM has difficulties( It’s called “Tilting at Windmills” for a rationale, folks !), but it’s crystal clear that when you consider the participants in this market properly( by not, say, dramatically overproducing) and grow good material, the DM is a profitable machine that allows you to amortize your costs and easily trying to reach and construct wider marketplaces. The DM is not really sexy, and actually it’s kind of janky in places, but the math appears to say that throwing out your single-best sales channel is totally crazy gasps, at best.

I can’t accompany any track that doesn’t cripple DC with these changes to distribution and staffing for the DM- auctions are absolutely off on the “bread and butter” of DC’s line in a way that is largely disguised by “Joker War”, “Death Metal” and “Three Jokers” all reaching at the exact same epoch- and I am 100% certain that these punches were significantly smaller knocks than they could have been had DC not tried to force retailers to buy from their largest competitors. But those slams were long-gestating, and are unlikely to be repeated into 2021 based upon what we know of DC’s means. The first opening of ’2 1, “Future State”, appears from the outside to be pure commercial-grade demise, and DC seems to be suggesting that they’re consciously moving away from continuity this year- the thing that’s actually the “secret sauce” that keeps their production ticking along.

Much like Heroes World and Marvel in 1995, it’s nearly impossible to see how this plan could tick along for more than two years or so, and the hollowing out of staff and business at DC would seem to me to guarantee that DC will be nothing but weaker at the end of this inning. My firmest expectation is that DC will no longer personally be selling comics by January of 2022, and instead will move to licensing them out to another publisher. I suppose it’s conceptually possible they could maybe generate the same profit by going that road, but the math seems poverty-stricken from my surface of the table- instead I will project that thousands of people’s subsistences and indignations will be humiliated because people with no desire to figure out how producing actually runs will improve pipe dream scenarios which are going to come crashing down around them.

Because at the end of the working day, Marie Javins could be the single best Editor-in-Chief in DC history, but if you don’t have a sales and sell unit there to support you in your single largest busines, it’s like expecting someone to drive in the Indianapolis 500 without having a quarry crew.

I sincerely hope that the other market participants, my peer retailers, and Diamond itself, are realise strong plans for a future without DC comics. I can’t see how any other upshot is likely.



Brian Hibbs has owned and operated Comix Experience in San Francisco since 1989, was a founding member of the Board of Directors of ComicsPRO, has sat on the Board of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and has been an Eisner Award judge. Feel free to e-mail him with any comments. You can purchase two collections of the first Tilting at Windmills( originally serialized in Comics Retailer magazine) published by IDW Publishing, as well as discovery an archive of pre-CBR installments right here. Brian is also available to consult for your publishing or retailing program.

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