Friday, 18 October 2013

I Hate To Say I Told You So, But...

Last time round, I said that the DC Villains Month had cut the legs out from under a couple of their newer, struggling titles.

And lo! Here among the solicitations for January:

Katana and Vibe also gone, without even an official notice to wave them off. 

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

AND ANOTHER THING... (Warning: contains exclamation marks. Lots of 'em)

Look, I know it seems that I'm spending a lot of time pummeling DC Comics, but this is something that just bugs me.

Batman: Black & White is a really enjoyable book. Honest, it is. But this is the contents page of #2:

I mean, look at the talent there! And a cover by Jim Steranko!*

But also look! There's a listing of all the DC executive staff! And look! Just under that! There's a listing of all the DC executive staff! Again!

I know, I know. That indicia is in every book the company publishes, and the same sort of thing is in every Marvel book - every comic book available these days, in fact. I know it's the result of some kind of in-house decision, or slip-up, or something, and there's absolutely no malign intent.

It's just that having that same listing appear twice on the same page makes me think DC consider Jay Kogan or Alison Gill or Jeff Boison to be twice as important as JG Jones or Rafael Albuquerque or Alex Nino or dammit Jim Steranko.

I know that's probably not the case.

But this is the second month in a row this has happened in this book.

It annoys me.

That's all.

*Admittedly, the cover is of a Batman who looks like he's got some weird kind of Crown of Thorns thing sticking out of his cowl, but what the hell. It's Steranko!


It’s another Hypothetical Comic Shop post! Remember, the HCS  doesn’t actually exist no matter what you think!

We sold the last copy of the DC Villains Month 3D covers on Saturday; it was the one remaining copy of Batman/Riddler that had stayed on the shelf for a week or two, sitting there sadly like a fat lass at a disco while the Harley Quinns and the Joker’s Daughters were whisked off their feet by tall good-looking lads.

So what was the impression left by the month? Well, it didn’t increase our sales of DC books, as, along with almost every other retailer in the world, we didn’t get anywhere near the number of copies of the 3D covers that we’d ordered. Furthermore, because the covers gimmick far outweighed the content of the comics, the 2D covers didn’t sell nearly as well as they usually would in an ordinary month. We were scrupulously fair with the 3D covers and made sure that everybody who’d ordered them got as many as possible, but where standard copies had to be supplied, quite a few were refused. I have no problem with a customer who does that: they ordered a certain product in good faith, that product was not available and they had every right to refuse what they felt was an unsatisfactory replacement.

As a result, the extra revenue from the higher price on the enhanced covers has been more than negated by the number of unsold standard copies we have (although, as a shop that specialises in old comics, we hope to shift those standard covers either as back issues or when we put them on sale online).

What’s really struck me over the course of the month is something we won’t really feel the effect of for another few weeks: the number of standing orders that have been cancelled as a result of Villains Month. The nature of the event has meant that most regular titles have had to either interrupt their storylines or bring them to an end, then see those storylines replaced for a month by material created in the most part by different talent than usual and therefore in a different style than usual. All this in the service of a short series that’s really only of interest to those who read the ongoing series it spins out of.

God, that’s complex.

So what we’ve seen a lot of is regular customers coming in, some of them excited by the cover enhancements, some of them not caring either way, but all of them deciding that the break in storylines is the ideal place to drop a title or two. Or three. Or, in a couple of cases, all of them.

That isn’t going to help us, especially in the next two or three months while the cancelled items are still filtering through the direct market system (though that system was kind of torn up and spat on by Villains Month’s infamous allocations). For a while, we’re going to be shelving extra copies of low-selling titles. Maybe they’ll sell off the shelf. I doubt it. If they were going to sell off the shelf we’d order more copies for just that purpose. Experience has told us these titles don’t sell off the shelf, so essentially we’re eating them (unless, as above, they shift as part of the long tail that’s a major part of the shop’s business model).

It also isn’t going to help those low-selling titles: the Katanas and the Vibes and the Stormwatches are going to take a hit, while the more recently-launched books – I’m talking very directly here about The Movement and The Green Team – have been dealt a major blow far too early in their lives, and it’s one they’ll likely not recover from. To disrupt the flow of a struggling new book while it’s still trying to build an audience, and moreover to not give that book a look in on the promotional stunt it was withdrawn to accommodate, is pretty much slitting that title’s throat.

The Movement: will soon go
 to live on a farm
There’s another aspect to this: those low-selling titles tend to have a small but very loyal following. The Movement and The Green Team actually attract exactly one standing order customer each, and are the only titles those two customers read. So we’ve not seen those customers this month, and we’ve been told by one of those two that he’s now fed up with buying titles that last less than a year (yes, we’ve tried guiding him toward books with a greater chance of survival, but some people have very very distinct tastes) and is unlikely to replace the book when it reaches its inevitable early end. So that’s at least one customer gone. Yes, a very low-spending customer, but a customer nonetheless. Every single one is valuable. Every single loss is a blow.

So generally, the month has been an overall loss. It’s been ameliorated a little by the increased sales on Marvel’s X-Men and Avengers books as they dive into yet another crossover (surprisingly, the bright yellow trade dress on the Battle Of The Atom books has been a terrific eye-catcher, while people have stared at the shelves for ages before asking where the 3D covers are). What we’ve taken from it is that these annual gimmicks only work if they’re inclusive: they have to be a continuation of, or close adjunct to, the regular content, and they have to be available to everybody.

There’s been something else we’ve learned recently, though; the shop’s location – and indeed the nature of the business itself - means it’s never really attracted very much in the way of footfall, outside of the regulars who make the trek to see us. In the last few months, as our area’s begun attracting a new, younger type of resident, we’ve been getting more requests for the material we’ve not traditionally stocked, material outside of the basic spandex melodramatics. If this keeps up, as I hope it will, we’re gong to see a major shift in our customer base and what they consume, and that, with luck, will make us less reliant on the books from the two major publishers.

Which will mean that in a few years time, when there’s another gimmick month like this September, we’ll be able to do what we really wanted to do this time around: just not bother with it.

And you know what else? If you’re short-sighted like I am, those covers give you one hell of a headache. 

The Hypothetical Comics Shop stays open late on Wednesdays, unless there's something good on the telly.

Normal Service May Possibly Be Resumed

We've been having a bit of a rest.

We'll make up for it.

Monday, 24 June 2013


The first in an occasional series of ‘Hypothetical Comic Shop’ posts. It does not reflect the opinions of any actual comic shop, no matter what you may think.

Here at the Hypothetical Comic Shop we’ve been discussing the September DC Comics Villains Month, just as many other comic shops have been doing over the last few weeks. There’s no need to go into details of what the September books are because if you’re interested enough to be reading this, you’re interested enough to know what’s going on.

Now, we have a number of problems with the September books. Some of them are unique to ourselves – for instance, how do we enter these strangely-numbered books onto a custom-made database that doesn’t accept anything but whole numbers? – but most are being experienced by shops all over the place.

Here’s the first problem: how do we communicate these books to our customers? We have scarcely enough hours in the day to do our normal job of selling comics. We’re now going to have to explain to each of our customers (excluding the ones who spent all day and all night on the internet and know about these things before we do) what September’s all about. We’re going to have to field their queries, some of which we won’t know the answer to and for which we’ll have to spend time finding those answers.

We’ve started to do this already, talking to our regulars, getting an initial feel for what’s happening (and that initial feel is: it isn’t good, of which more in a minute). For some, who haven’t had time to listen to me doing a show-and-tell without the show as we have nothing yet to show, or who haven’t been able to quite grasp the concept, we’ve printed off the full solicitations from the web. Twelve pages per customer. That’s another expense for us.

Teen Titans 23.something, featuring Deathstroke.
The guy's own book's just died. How do we sell another issue?
When the relevant Previews hits, we’re going to use the shop copies to give people more idea of what they’ll be buying, should they wish to buy them. We’ll be asking them to place solid orders for the books they definitely want. Why we’ll be doing this will be made clearer below.

The initial reaction, as hinted above, is not good. I’d say that around sixty per cent of those made aware of September have been unimpressed. They’re not impressed by the concept, by the covers, by the price rise – even though it’s only temporary. Most of all, they’re not impressed by the fact that there will be no issue of certain titles in that month. And this has led to disgruntled customers telling us to cancel their orders for those titles. What’s worse is that the missing titles are in the main B-list books: Vibe. All-Star Western. Already low-selling, borderline-cancellation titles are taking a hit. You couldn’t design a more efficient way of guaranteeing a book’s death.

Some customers have already decided they’ve had enough with the publisher as a whole and have cancelled their entire DC order. Some have gone so far as to walk away from their orders – DC, Marvel, the lot - altogether. Undoubtedly some will change their mind and re-instate those books, but it’s still a blow to us and probably more so to them.

However: the main problem with the majority of these books is this; we have no idea how many of each to order.

We’ll have a rough idea with those books that retain the creative team of the regular title. I’m thinking here of the Flash issue which has the same creative team as the regular book and seems to be a continuation of the regular storyline, and of the issue of Swamp Thing that does the same, and also, strangely enough, of Justice League 23.3, which is essentially the final issue of the already-dead Dial H title. Our orders will be weighted towards those titles, because we can at least show them to our customers and say 'This is as close as you're going to get this month to the comic you usually read.' Also, we're more disposed to ordering those titles rather than the ones featuring B-list characters and, loathe though I am to say it, B-list creators. 

We’ll probably also weight heavily in favour of fan-favourite characters: experience tells us that the Joker and Harley Quinn are characters that sell well as back issues, so we’ll be ordering quite a few of those.

Green Lantern 23.something. Unknown character in a book partially comprising previously-published
 pin-up pages with new dialogue added. It'll fly off the shelves. 

But even that relatively simple way of deciding order figures has been denied us; DC have added a new wrinkle, the one that prompted the comment in the headline of this post. They’ve announced that because of the cost of physically producing the all-singing all-dancing 3D lenticular it’s-just-like-the-1990s-again covers on the Villains Month books, they’re losing money on each one they make. And because of that, they’ve already set the print runs for each title. What this means is that DC are taking away from the retailer the only certainty that we had about this month’s books, one of the few certainties of the direct market; the certainty of receiving the actual amount that we ordered.

As there’s a fixed print run, and as that print run has already been set before any actual orders have been received, there’s a chance – and it’s a fairly strong chance – that certain titles will be ordered in excess of their actual availability. That will mean the titles that have been over-ordered will be distributed to shops in numbers reflecting a ratio of that shop’s original order. It’s called ‘allocation’, and it’s a bitch.

Say you ordered 100 copies of Batman 23.3. You might receive 100 copies. You might receive 90. You might receive 25.

That’d be fine if you only needed 25 copies of Batman 23.3 but you’d taken a chance that the book would be allocated and so ordered 100 copies. You took a bet and luckily you won. But what if you lost? What if you only needed 25 copies, you ordered 100, and DC had actually printed enough to fill all the orders? Why, then you’d have four times as many Batman 23.3 as you needed, and you’d have to start praying that those puppies sell well because in a few weeks time you’re going to be staring at a bill for seventy-five unsold comics – at a higher price than usual, don’t forget – and it’s pretty unlikely that Diamond are going to either take those unwanted copies back or give you more time to pay for them.

Even that’s not the end of it: allocations usually occur when there’s a physical problem with the production of a book, which results in fewer copies being available than were ordered. They’re not a good thing to happen because someone, somewhere along the line, will end up disappointed. But at least they happen rarely and are out of most people’s control.

But this time they’re not. This time, DC have introduced allocations into the equation very early, and with it comes the ugly notion of market manipulation. Let’s say you’re a big retailer with a good cash-flow and funds to spare. You want your full order of these books, so you order far in excess of what you ordinarily would, in the hope that the allocation system will give you something near the ‘right’ amount. But then you over-order, on purpose, an amount in excess of even your initial over-order. You do this because the higher the orders DC receive, the more likely it is that allocation will occur, and the more likely it is that these now-scarce books will become ‘hot’ and go up in price.  That’ll be great for you because you could afford to gamble on the things and the amount you received, even after allocation, gave you plenty of copies to put on the secondary market and make a killing on.  Not so good, though, for the poor sap who was allocated short and has a load of pissed-off customers who didn’t get their copies.

What worries us most about September is the thing that actually worries us here at the Hypothetical Comic Shop the least (mainly because we’re, y’know, hypothetical): what will the initial sales be like? We’re lucky enough that our imaginary and thus flexible business model can be geared towards mail-order rather than standard retail, and towards back issues rather than new material. Yes, Tuesday is still delivery day and still our busiest day behind the scenes, and yes, a lot of people come in to the shop on Wednesday to see the lovely new comics. But that isn’t as important for us as it is for what we’ve come to call ‘Wednesday shops’- those shops whose business model skews more towards regular sales of new material, and whose major income stream comes from the Wednesday-to-Saturday new comics purchases. It’s bad enough that these shops are subject to revenue fluctuations that can be triggered by something as trivial as there being too many X-books published in one week. In September there’s going to be a lot of flashy stuff, most of it costing more than usual, competing for a limited amount of disposable income in the customer’s pocket, and that’s going to mean a greater than usual amount of other material remaining unsold. That in turn means cash flow problems come invoice-paying time, and for a lot of stores who exist pretty much on a month-to-month basis in a crippled economy, it may be too much to bear.

So what should DC have done? If they really have to celebrate their ‘re-birthday’ every September, what would have been a better idea than Villains Month? Simple answer: Heroes Month. Every one of their regular titles gets a shiny 3D lenticular cover that showcases the star of the book. Would that mean four or five Batman covers? Yes it would, and each one of those would sell like crazy. Back those covers up with decent stories by decent creators – you know the thing, a bit like Marvel and Dark Horse and so many other companies are doing on most of their books – and you’ve got a sure-fire winner. In fact, why not just forget about the ‘shiny covers’ bit and go straight for the ‘decent stories’? You can have that idea, on me. No charge. No, no. I insist. Really, I insist.

The Hypothetical Comic Shop keeps odd hours, but if the lights are on, we’re open.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Speak, Bolt!

Black Bolt, eh? Leader of the Inhumans, with the power to bring down an entire city with a single word. Known, therefore, for being exceptionally quiet. Except for when Kirby wrote the book...

Misplaced balloon fun by Jack Kirby and Chic Stone from Amazing Adventures v2, 1970. Edited, but seemingly not proof-read, by Stan Lee (who also didn't notice this...
...but he had so much more to worry about, eh?)

Monday, 3 June 2013

Yeah, Yok It Up...

Amazing Adult Fantasy #12, May 1963: Stan Lee encourages illegal behaviour among the folk of Dallas, Texas. In November of that year, Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Texas. Coincidence? Or the culmination of a months-long campaign of inculcating crime? Only you can decide.