Tilting at Windmills Volume 2
The second volume of Tilting at Windmills collects more columns about selling comics in direct market specialty stores by outspoken San Francisco retailer Brian Hibbs. (I commented briefly on the first volume; sadly, it’s out of print, although still available used.)
The columns collected here were originally published from late 2000 through March 2008. The first 17 finished up Hibbs’ run in Comics & Games Retailer, a professional limited-circulation magazine. The remaining 50 ran on Newsarama.com, where the audience included consumers as well as retailers. As Hibbs points out in his introduction, this eight-year period is an incredible time of change for comics, both in terms of popular perception, as they gained respect, and in format. The direct market, he says, is becoming one “driven primarily by sales of trade paperback editions and graphic novels.”
Tracking changing perceptions of book-format comics is one of the most interesting threads through this volume. In the early days, he’s enthusiastic about TPBs at a time when many of his compatriots didn’t carry them. He says then that most have an infinite shelf life, most are kept in stock by the publishers, and many will keep selling “forever”. Obviously, he couldn’t have predicted how some publishers would take the wrong lessons from this format, treating books as periodicals instead of handling them as perennials. (Such as his own publisher for this volume, not having the first book available when this one was released.) Nor could he (or anyone) see the glut that resulted as publishers raced to put out collections of almost anything, whether it was worth reprinting or not. By the end of the book, Hibbs has moved from (paraphrasing) “you want to start carrying books with spines and here’s why” to “here’s why publishers should hold off soliciting TPBs so we can sell more periodicals”.
I was surprised one important subject wasn’t really covered: Hibbs’ class-action lawsuit against Marvel to force them to live up to their contractual Terms of Service with retailers. The first mention is in passing, in a piece about how badly Diamond’s backlist catalog (a publication no longer offered in print these days) is organized. Later this is explained as legal timidity on the part of C&GR magazine, which was trying to sell itself at the time. That’s a shame, since it would have been invaluable to see his thoughts at the time captured, as he worked through the process. This attitude eventually led to Hibbs’ departure in favor of online venues, which also allowed for a much shorter lead time before publication.
Also included are Hibbs’ notorious Bookscan sales figure analyses from 2003-2007. I say “notorious” because they always invoke discussion from all the various parties with dogs in the hunt. Since so little sales data is available, though, it’s what we’ve got to go on. I did get a giggle out of the early entry speculating on whether manga is a 2003 fad; I think that one’s been answered by now.
I had deja vu reading a piece from 2001 complaining about how bad DC crossovers are. Until he mentioned “Our Worlds at War”, it could have been any year of the past eight. The point that such big, line-spanning events ultimately result in lower sales unfortunately still haven’t been learned by the publishers. Other topics, such as how comics are too expensive (at a top price of $3 an issue) or how the San Diego Comic-Con was too big (in 2002), are always timely complaints, even if the details differ. There were also several memories raised of things gone from the industry but not missed, such as CrossGen or Bill Jemas or the temporary fad of 10-cent/9-cent/25-cent storyline starter issues.
While business specifics may be outdated in the earlier sections, the underlying messages are still relevant: choose what you want to do intelligently and do it well. Work with your retail partners to show them the results of their decisions and intelligently argue for change if necessary. And most of all, don’t let the bastards get you down. (Hibbs never says this explicitly, but it’s what I thought after reading his columns during Jemas’ reign at Marvel.) In the 400 pages, there’s lots of material about what publishers are doing wrong or could do better, but if you’re interested in the unique issues of comic retailing, the gems — such as the piece on how to stock your first store — are well worth it.
A few notes: Newsarama column #6, covering cycle sheets from June 2004, is missing for unknown reasons. Maybe it was just an oversight, or maybe it was thought not to make much sense without the supporting examples. (Since there are notes for it in the back, I’m guessing it was an accidental omission.) Later numbering jumps around to cover the gap and match up to the point where he mentions this is his 150th column. (Each column entry has three numbers: the Newsarama sequence number, a sequence number for the entire series, and a sequential number based on its place in the book. Newsarama V2 #31 is series #147, then N V2 #32 becomes #149 to get back to where the numbers are supposed to be.)
Where links originally appeared in the online columns, endnotes have been substituted, but they’re of limited use. Since Newsarama changed its structure, all of the old links are given as just “classic.newsarama.com”, which won’t aid the reader in finding anything specifically. (Update as of August 2010: The classic.newsarama links are now all dead, and I have removed references to them from this piece.) Other URLs have IP addresses instead of domain names, which means the reader can’t be sure what site is being referred to.
I missed the introductory notes that were included much more frequently in the previous volume, but since this content is newer, it needs less context given. Although by the time I got to 2006, many of the DC titles mentioned were completely unmemorable to me. I think that’s a comment on how superhero comics no longer speak to me, so I don’t follow or recall many of them. Still, Bloodhound? That one rang no bell at all, although it turns out I liked reading it at the time.
The book ends with praise and a pitch for ComicsPro, the new retailer trade group, an implicit way of informing the reader seeking guidance where to go for more. The series found a new home at comicbookresources.com in May 2008.