plainly and simply parasitical on the obvious or univocal reading

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Out of my Depth, and Paddling Furiously

As everyone likely already knows, Tom Spurgeon has his own comics site now. And yes, as all my fellow comics bloggers are saying, it is likely the new Journalista in terms of how essential it is to the online comics commentary community. He makes a fantastic start with some excellent posts, particularly his response to Dirk Deppey’s articles about the recent changes at Marvel. I find Spurgeon’s perspective to be incredibly insightful, and Deppey has already promised in a thread on the Comics Journal message board that he will have a reply. I’m riveted to this discussion already.

Also of note on Spurgeon’s site, and the reason behind this post, is a link to a Newsarama interview with Jeff Smith. There was apparently a bit of controversy at the San Diego con regarding Smith’s choice to sell the single-volume Bone trade himself at his booth and to debut it at the con prior to offering it up for sale on the direct market. A few retailers were upset at that decision on the grounds that it directly competed with them after they had spent the last ten years carrying the single issue Bone comics as well as the trade paperbacks in their stores. Newsarama columnist and comics retailer Brian Hibbs even wrote a column addressing the issue (it’s only a small section of a longer and broader column, but he does have some things to say on the subject).

All of this raises questions about small-press convention etiquette, as well as broader questions about the responsibility of the small-press publisher to a system that is, more often than not, indifferent at best to the small publisher. I realize that there are shops out there that really make an effort to stock and sell small-press and self-published material. I live in a city where there is more than one such shop. However, the majority of direct market stores don’t support the small-press creator or publisher. They probably couldn’t afford to even if they wanted to. The large company publishers’ policies and the mechanism of distribution are both very good at making life difficult for the retailer. In such an environment, any shop that carries a small-press book of any kind is really sticking its neck out. This is something that should be appreciated. These retailers should be graciously thanked at every opportunity. However, does this mean, when it comes down to it, that the small publisher owes these shops first go-round on any new product they put out, or that publishers are obligated to refrain from selling their own product at conventions?

It’s hard enough right now in the direct market for books published by the first four publishers in the Previews catalog to find a sustainable audience. All of those publishers filed under miscellaneous, as it were, have an almost impossible task in getting noticed, capturing the attention of retailers and then maybe a reader or two in a given shop. Conventions provide an opportunity to deal with consumers directly, and give consumers a chance to actually look through the products rather than guessing based on Previews solicitations whether or not they’ll like something. The average small-press creator or self-publisher can sell more books in this way in a single weekend than in months of having one or two books sitting unnoticed on the shelf of a comic shop. To not take advantage of such an opportunity would be unnecessarily stupid. Further, to be able to sell a book directly, at cover price, with no one else (such as Diamond) taking a cut is great for publishers, and again, to not take advantage of that situation is stupid.

Now, things are messed up all around, but retailers and small publishers have the toughest go of things. If the readership was unsatisfied with the product that’s currently available, they wouldn’t be buying it, and if the big companies were unsatisfied with their audience I would suppose that they’d try to diversify their product lines or impose some sort of quality control. So yeah, it seems that the smaller publishers and retailers are getting the bad end. But what to do? The ideal thing would be to grow the audience for comics in general, but it seems that inasmuch as that’s being done right now it’s not being done in the direct market. This isn’t the fault of retailers, of course. I think it’s more of a structural problem with the direct market itself. What the DM seems to do best is selling single issue comics week in and week out. At this point I want to make it clear (if it isn’t already) that I don’t really know what I’m talking about. I’m really going from memory to a large extent. So if any retailer-bloggers out there can help me out with some info on how this works, that would be great. I guess what I want to know at this point is, what are the benefits to the small/self-publisher in selling through retailers as opposed to directly to consumers when at a con? And in the case of longer-form work, this would apply even when not at a con. And if there is no benefit, then is it reasonable to expect a small/self-publisher to act against self-interest and sell through a retailer purely out of a sense of loyalty to the direct market (or for whatever reason, I just grabbed the first one that came to mind. And I don’t mean to trivialize loyalty, either)?

And by the way, have I said how much I love my retailer? Heh heh…

Oh boy.

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