Thursday, March 08, 2007

Adventures in Retailing: Feeding Frenzy

So... anybody reading Captain America lately?

It was an interesting week. We knew something big was coming, because when the writer of the book tells you "Order more copies" you're more inclined to do it than when you hear it from marketing or (especially) from an editor in chief who is given to hype. So we doubled our orders on Captain America #25, a book that already has been selling pretty well for us.

As a result, we sold out by 4 PM instead of by 1 PM. I don't feel like I could have done much better... based on vague promises of "This is going to be big," I really couldn't hit my Civil War numbers. I mean, Marvel promised the same thing with Civil War: The Return, and if I had ordered Civil War numbers on that book, I'd *still* be eating the costs. By the time we get our Cap reorders, we'll be well over Civil War's numbers, though.

This being my first time dealing with Diamond back orders and a book this highly anticipated, I almost missed the boat entirely on putting in back orders, and as it is, I missed the somewhat arbitrary Thursday noon deadline, so that the majority of my books will be arriving a little later. I'm not quite sure why the direct ship deadline is Thursday noon for Captain America and Monday by 5 PM for everything else, but hey, it's an unusual situation, so I'm willing to roll with it and hope my customers can hold out for the extra week it'll take me to restock. I'm not *happy* about it, but I'm not gnashing my teeth and screaming at Diamond or Marvel about it. I've noticed that retailers like to bitch, about everything, and frankly I don't want to be one of those guys. I'd like to reserve my bitching for when I think it's constructive and at least a little bit fair.

Sure, Marvel could have handled it better. They knew enough about how big this was going to be to coordinate with the media, and to have an overprint ready. What would have been nice is if they had made sure the overprint was available the day of, so that when intrepid retailers who use the Diamond website to check stock went to see the availability, they didn't get the rather daunting impression that the book was gone, and there wasn't any point in calling my Diamond rep to ask about it.

But they really couldn't have told retailers what was going to happen. Truth is, someone in the retail community would have blabbed, ruining the story not only for the media and diminishing its attention from a business standpoint, but for the fans. We would have known the story two months ago, rather than having Yahoo! news spoil it the day of. I don't like ordering based on the invisible solicits we've been getting from Marvel, but this was a big secret to keep, and as long as it doesn't become a habit, I'm OK with it this one time.

My bigger worry is the larger scale implications of it. I was working comics retail when the Death of Superman hit. I remember lines out the door, excitement and frustration at the prices. I remember skyrocketing sales, brought down by a near-crash of the industry when people realized they'd essentially been scammed. And I worry that we're watching the whole thing repeat.

But... with any luck, the retailers who are left are smarter. I hope that a lot of the fanbase is too. The people buying Cap should know that Superman came back, and Cap will too. So far, it seems that a lot of people looking for the issue aren't looking to fund their kids' college education, but just to read what sounds like a pretty earth-shattering story. I know I've been doing my best to tell people who are buying it that it's a good story, not a commodity that's going to appreciate with time. In the short term, the comic is going for insane amounts on Ebay (and if you bought Cap #25 for like $50 or more, I'm very sorry because in about two weeks, anyone should be able to walk into a comics shop and get it for less than $5), but in the long-term, it's going to have the price of Spawn #1 or the Death of Superman issues.

This is a huge opportunity to get outsiders into comics. I hope we don't fuck it up this time. For my part, I'm going to be making up bookmarks to give away that point readers to Brubaker's Cap trades, to Criminal, to Sleeper, to Daredevil. I'm going to be doing my best to make sure that folks who come in to see Captain America's death see the breadth of what comics have to offer. And I'm going to do my best to make sure that anyone who walks out with Captain America #25 has bought it with their eyes open, so that in a few months they don't decide that comics made a bunch of false promises and the whole medium isn't worth their time.

Now, might this cost some short-term sales? Might we accidentally turn off a speculator who wants to buy 10 copies and slab them at CGC? Might we make a mint selling a few copies on Ebay for outrageous prices? Sure. But I'm more interested in the long-term, in using this very successful event to gain fans of the medium. I'd love it if in a few years, when I'm telling people "I own a comic shop" they don't say "Oh, yeah, what's my Captain America #25 worth?" but rather "Oh yeah, I started buying comics again after they killed Captain America... there's a lot of good stuff in comics."

It's a pretty good time for a comic book retailer to snag casual customers. I got a big 'ol stack of $30 300 hardcovers today... three of them were presold, it wouldn't surprise me too much if I wind up having to reorder more in the next week. Transformers is right around the corner, and is raising interest in IDW's well-produced Transformers books. Fantastic Four hits this summer, and while I question the timing of replacing the familiar team with Black Panther and Storm, having Dwayne McDuffie on as writer means that fans coming off the movie will have something cool to read. Add in Dark Tower (which sold gangbusters with its second issue this week), Buffy (coming next week), Anita Blake, etc. etc. and comics are doing better than ever at reaching out to new audiences. I feel like this was the right time to buy a shop.

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