Lost Amid the Shelves

Myopic retailers drive me nuts. I mentioned the other day the fact that many retailers have reacted poorly to Top Shelf's decision to sell Lost Girls signed by Moore and Gebbie direct to consumers via their website, viewing it as a supplier and theoretical partner turning into a competitor and "stealing" sales from the direct market stores that support that publisher the most. Nevermind the fact that just about every comic publisher outside of Diamond's four brokered publishers sell direct to consumers via their website. Dave Sim did it for years with Cerebus (and continues to do so) because he, like Top Shelf, understands that their product is only carried by a select number of retailers. They can reach a much larger number of potential customers selling direct via the web or mail order, something that Top Shelf clearly understands since they offer nearly their entire catalog for sale via the web already. This isn't an example of Top Shelf making a product available exclusively through a single retail outlet that theoretically operates in direct competition with direct market stores (i.e. a chain bookstores). There was never any inherent right for direct market stores to carry this product and no single retailer is being given an advantage over others.

The only reason that a comic retailer even believes they should be entitled to sell this book in the first place is because to a large degree we're still stuck in a collector's mentality where selling a signed edition of a book is not an unusual practice. How many signed copies of The Da Vinci Code have you seen at Borders? There may be independent bookstores that specialize in that sort of collectible, but they rarely purchase such a product directly from a publisher, and is that even the model that we want to base our industry's growth on?

Could some retailers benefit from selling this book? Absolutely, we're talking about a product which would make a store roughly $67 per copy sold. Yet, Top Shelf loses more than half of their profit by utilizing that method of delivery. I would wager that the only reason Top Shelf doesn't sell every title they publish exclusively via their website is that they realize that by doing both they can reach an even larger number of customers than either method of exclusively offering the product would allow. Since, in general, any publisher's goal is to sell as many copies of every book they publish as possible, it makes the most sense to offer as many means of access to that product as possible. In the case of a limited edition, though, it's a matter of determining how many copies will sell via whatever channels are available and determining the most profitable print run and manner of fulfilling demand. Top Shelf, rightly or wrongly, determined that there was demand for 500 copies of the signed edition if sold via the web.

Because of the enormous risk involved in this project, Top Shelf apparently did not feel that there was enough demand in the direct market to support enough copies so that the more limited profit they would see via that channel would be worthwhile. It's entirely possible that they worried that direct market stores would "steal" some of their internet sales and cut into the profitability of the limited edition (which they state up front made financing the regular edition possible). Certainly there may have been other alternatives, but I doubt that Top Shelf felt they were as advantageous. While I'm sure they understood that many retailers would be upset by this decision, I think they also anticipate that those retailers are smart enough not to stop carrying books that sell (seriously, is any semi-intelligent store owner who can sell From Hell or the next League of Extraordinary Gentlemen going to cut orders on those books in retaliation?).

There is something of an ancillary argument that is brought up in conjunction, namely that small publishers like Top Shelf cut into stores' sales when they sell direct to readers at conventions and that this likely will happen at San Diego Comic-Con. Seriously? I'm sorry, I'm just not worried that someone is buying at a convention instead of at my store. Now, if I'm running a shop in San Diego, sure there may be a legitimate concern there. But for a company to turn away people who are waving money in there faces and tell them to drive 15 minutes down the road to buy their books, well that's just not smart business. Rather than kicking and screaming, it would seem to benefit a store much more to partner with these publishers to promote the local shop as a place to find other books by that publisher.

For retailers to scream that we're being screwed over assumes that we're owed something here. Apparently, just because we support Top Shelf's titles, we deserve a cut of Top Shelf's profits from this limited edition. While I understand that Top Shelf has asked for help from retailers to avoid bankruptcy in the past, that's really not much more than another sales gimmick, albeit one that plays on personal preferences and sympathy rather than economics. Since we fell for it, apparently we're now owed some charity in return.

Sorry for the tangent, more on Wholesale Concerns is coming.


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