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IMO:
The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly
By John Byrne

09/12/02


There is a phenomenon quite broadly evident in comic fandom (and elsewhere too, I am sure), which I have dubbed "Red Sweater Syndrome." This is not an obtuse Star Trek reference, but goes to a kind of "I want to be offended!" mentality, thus:

Person A: "Anyone who wears a red sweater is an idiot!"

Person B: "Hey!! I've never worn a red sweater in my life, and I resent being called an idiot!"

It's a strange phenomenon -- and I've been struggling through a couple of days of it manifesting in full flower over on a message board I frequent. It started quite a while back, actually, when a number of posters, bemoaning the demise of Lab Rats, noted how difficult it was to even find the book in their various necks of the woods. In fairly rapid order we had reports of shops that under-ordered the book and refused to reorder, or that refused to order at all, or that racked the book where it could not be found. Remarkable and curious behavior in retail, and a furious discussion ensued. Since this was not the first time I had been sent through this particular loop -- Danger Unlimited suffered a similar fate -- I joined in to express my disgust with such retailers. Especially those who, confronted with a customer eager to buy my work, refuse to order it because "Byrne's stuff doesn't sell."

Is there a logic in that statement that I'm missing? I try to shift it into other venues to get some sense out of it. A customer telling a car salesman that he wants to buy the latest Vroomster 98 -- and the car salesman saying "No, I don't want to sell you that one."

Of course, I have a lot of difficulty translating into other business operations many of the attitudes we often find in comicbook retailing. Not long after the above discussion began, a sidebar developed investigating the difference between Good Retailers and Bad Retailers. A lot of posters had had experiences with the latter, and they all read like scenes from The Simpsons. There is a reason that Comic Book Guy exists on that show. Clichés do not spring into being out of nothing. And many of the posters had their tales of surly clerks, the fanboys behind the counter who dis a customer for buying something of which They do not approve. And, of course, that most odd insanity of rejoicing over the demise of a title they don't like -- as if the present marketplace is healthy enough that the death of any book does not hurt.

That "Red Sweater Syndrome" kicked in when my comments about bad retailers began being circulated among retailers in general -- "Look what Byrne is saying about all of you!" Now I have retailers reporting how hard they worked to sell Lab Rats, and how they resent being called Bad Retailers.

Huh?

There are Bad Retailers, and all of us have bumped into them at one time or another. Many of them used to be dealers, hauling their long boxes from comic show to comic show, and they have not managed to shed the dealer mentality. Some of them came in during the Speculator Boom, and that even more damaging mentality persists now that they have entered what should be a very different realm.

One of the recurrent complaints I hear from those I consider to number among the Bad Retailers is that Marvel and DC don't produce enough Guaranteed Hits! These Bad Retailers are not interested in simply selling comics, week after week, as used to be the case with the newsstand and early comic shops. They want only the hot titles that sell themselves -- preferably at inflated prices. They certainly don't want any books that might not fly off the shelves the day they come in. And that is a curious turn around, when we consider that the Direct Sales Market was created not to be a primary point of purchase, but to be what in other business is called an "after market" -- a place to go to buy stuff other than what the primary purchase outlets stock. In the case of comics, this meant back issues. The DSM was created specifically to create a stock of back issues which dealers could then sell long after the official "shelf life" of the book had passed.

Somewhere, though, starting roughly ten years ago, the mentality underwent a most unfortunate sea change, and the idea of "sell through" became the most important. If a book was still on the shelf a week after it came out, it was seen as some kind of failure. Imagine paperbacks being sold like this -- rather than as they are, with the expectation being of long shelf lives. Heck, imagine regular magazines being sold like this! Do Playboy, Cosmo, or Popular Mechanics expect all their sales on the day of release? Does Barnes and Noble freak out if they rack 'em on Wednesday and still have 'em on Thursday? Indeed not! In fact, these magazines depend on long shelf lives to extend the period in which they might get bought. It's the copies that are left at the end of the month that are the duds, not the ones left at the end of the first day!

Remember, too, that for much of their history, this is how comics were sold. They were considered magazines, and they were expected to have a shelf life of at least a month -- longer, in the days of bimonthly and twice-quarterly titles (which used to be most books!). The whole habit of dating books months ahead of their release date (common in most magazines) was part of a ploy to extend the shelf life -- there was a rather sad notion that a retailer would not remove, in June, a book that was dated September. (In reality, what retailers did was remove the titles that were on the racks when the next issue came in, regardless of the date.)

Good Retailers understand one very important thing: retailing is not about guarantees, it is about risk. This applies no matter what business one is in. Ford did not produce the Edsel expecting it to bomb. The Coca-Cola Company was stunned by the backlash against "New Coke." Eddie Murphy did not make Pluto Nash thinking "Time I did a stinker. . . " Likewise, who was not surprised by the success of the Hula Hoop, the Pet Rock, or Pokémon?

Recently, there has been a breath of sanity in the comicbook marketplace. Confronted with fans whose shops did not want to carry Lab Rats, while at the same time there were shops who claimed to have many unsold copies, I suggested perhaps it would be a good idea to set up a system in which these shops can get in touch with each other. No need for Shop A to be stuck with a box of unsold copies of The Adventures of Captain Fonebone, if two states over Shop B needs copies of The Adventures of Captain Fonebone. The internet seems a perfect device by which to set up such a system -- and I was delighted to read that some have already taken steps to do so. This is a Very Good Thing.

Its success, if fully initiated, will depend on how many Good Retailers there are, as opposed to Bad. I still cling to the idea that the Good outnumber the Bad. Is this too Pollyanna for the present market? Will there be idiots (wearing red sweaters, no doubt!) who would look upon the above networks as a bad thing? Who will say "But if I sell my extra copies to him at my cost, and he sells them at cover price. . . I'll have lost money!!!"? I have encountered many retailers who seem genuinely to believe a profit smaller than they expected represents a loss. This is one of the most damaging mentalities of all the damaging mentalities that vex the industry.

So, come on! Rally round the flag, boys! Take off the red sweaters and stop looking for reasons to be offended. Stop building problems where none exist. The industry is coughing blood. The publishers cannot fix it alone. Acknowledging that there is much for everyone to do is not the same as acknowledging that one is a Bad Retailer.

In fact, it's the first serious step toward becoming a Very Good Retailer!


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