Thursday, 15 May 2014

Borderline Press Blog #20 - the FCBD Rant

While I'm on one...

Anyone who read my serialised autobiographical expose of comics - My Monthly Curse - will know that I have little time for specific areas of the comics industry. One of the frustrating things about getting Borderline Press into comic shops has been lack of knowledge about our product and another reason is the fact we're not being carried by a distributor (my choice). As an ex-retailer, I find most comics publishers do not support retailers and distributors are like certain kinds of politicians, they are not interested in the future, so the 'help' they offer is not really help at all, it is just a devious way of ensuring they get paid.

Growth, for the people who make and deliver the comics that makes their world tick, needs to be immediate, you can't nurture things - it's too slow. Therefore not only did distributors become unpopular with retailers, they were also deliberately responsible for the loss of hundreds of comic shops between 1993 and 2000. They wanted to supply megastores and the small guys could go and be anatomically impossible with themselves. That retail devastation also angered many fans shorn of their Local Comic Shops, and where subsequently left to the vagaries and peculiarities of mail order.

The problem was that most didn't know or weren't aware that it was the people producing and delivering the comics, they loved, who were also responsible for Fat Larry's Comics and Porn in Wibley, West Virginia, closing down and every other store ran by an enthusiastic amateur (who might one day become an astute retailer - because, it does happen, I know quite a few of them).

It has always galled me that the retailer - the lifeblood of publishing - is and was abused in such a way by the people earning a living from them. It sat uneasily with me at how these distribution businesses could just so brazenly discard money making opportunities and now after ten years of avoiding comics like the plague, I'm back and it's still pretty much the same as it was before.

The 1990s have become an almost forgotten decade in popular culture (compared to the '60s, '70s and '80s), but for comics it was the decade when comics publishers discovered big business, commerce and commercialism and how to make more money than they believed was possible. Comics discovered Mammon.

In 2014, there are predominantly big, but there are small, 'comic' shops - there are the chains and the small guys (and gals) who have been striving away, despite the best efforts of publishers and distributors trying to kill them off. You still pay for Point of Sale items; you still pay for any kind of retailer support that is physically produced (they might even charge you for virtual stuff too) and there is even this thing called Free Comic Book Day, which actually isn't free but involves the giving away of comics.

I got behind FCBD because I thought it was something to help spotlight comics to the uninitiated... Bloody hell, how out of touch was I? It is actually organised by the leading distributor and if you are a retailer and you want to give away free comics - they'll cost you. Actually, if you want to give away free comics and you're not a big publisher it will cost you.

Retailers have to buy the comics they're giving away and they have to pay the distributor for delivering them and then they have to ensure they have paid up and registered to be able to use the logo, designed by the distribution company, who have a vested interest in the future of comics, or you can't be part of their (lucrative) FCBD. Once all these have been met and only then, can they give these comics to possible customers who will actually put more money into the accounts of the people supplying than the people selling!

You might need to read that again - it is correct.

Most comics shop spend between £250 and £1000 on FREE COMIC BOOK DAY! Most publishers produce a bunch of stuff for FREE COMIC BOOK DAY! But the distributor; the organisation that depends on the publisher and the punter being happy - will screw you to the floor with narrow-minded short-termism. FREE COMIC BOOK DAY my arse!

Can you image what would happen if farmers charged Tesco £3 for a 5kg bag of potatoes (instead of the 30p Tesco really pays for them)? The exact opposite applies in comics - it's an industry where the supplier and the courier are better rewarded than the person selling. I know, I'm bloody obsessed about it... But I can't think of another retail industry where that would happen - if you know of one, put me out of my misery!

So, I decided to do the free comic for FCBD; I was going to distribute it on May 3rd; I was going to send it out to retailers for free and with a note asking them to please give this to the people you think might like our books... and I got asked not to...

The company behind FCBD said:

It had an unauthorised use of their logo (fair enough).
We had not registered to be part of it (huh?)
We do not have an account (no and we're not likely to have one at this rate)
We have not had their approval for the contents of our free comic (and they were never going to get it as long as I have a hole in my anus)
It is not available outside of the UK in physical form (huh, again?)
It is forbidden to depict minors as Cthulhu children with octopus tentacles (okay, that was a lie)
There were a couple more, mainly to do with my sarcasm probably...

The point is - they were not making any money from me. They had no control over the content. They really did not like the idea that we were not only giving it away - FREE - but also shipping it ourselves - FREE. Our little FREE comic book in many ways proves what a misnomer FCBD really is  and was - another way for the suppliers and their delivery boys to rape the retailer while making the retailer think that it has been a success.

Surely the idea of a FCBD is to be given free comics, freely distributed, for comic shops to give away in an attempt to attract new (and old) readers into comic shops to buy comics which ultimately lines the pockets of all links in the chain. Where is the economic sense of what is currently happening unless the retailers haven't got any power at all over it and can't stop it, because they're all independent...

Wow, that's really truly stupid business practice; not by the shops or fans, but by everyone else associated with comics.

Anyhow, we took the logo off (as 3000 of you are aware) and I think they did us a BIG favour. I'd like my publishing company to be associated with such a great idea, but this is a great idea that hides a multitude of business sins and is just a new way of looking the gift horse in the mouth and extracting another tooth. Borderline Press will produce free comics, when it is economically viable, and do you know what? We'll continue to give them away and ship them to comic shops, at our cost. We may never be a big company, but I want retailers to know that someone is really on their side.

So, please be aware that this is actually a rant at the mechanism not the machine - I've worked in comics at a time of boom and also bust - when you had to speculate to try, almost forlornly, to accumulate the money lost from the last speculation. I was vaguely aware of FCBD when it started, but at the time I was in a place so far away from comics that only the barest remained. The idea of free comics is great - free things make audiences; free things work.

Remember Comics International? First six issues - Free. Then a nominal price that many shops didn't charge; because even giving away 30p was something the customers appreciated and it was a good intro to comics for the uninitiated. Having seen that work, I have a soupçon of admiration for the hierarchy of comics because since the advent of the Direct Market, the you-don't-get-anything-for-nothing policy is still working - so what do I know? I know it's like an extra tax for retailers and the ones who manage to overcome this spiteful practice are bloody good at what they do; they have to be.

The Borderline Press free comic cost a fair bit to produce (but nowhere near what that Mouse Guard hard back cost), to give as many people as possible a chance to see our brilliant books and then buy them so I make money, the retailer makes money and the creator of the book makes money. Goddamn it, I know that's ridiculously altruistic and I sound like some pinko liberal 18 year old with a penchant for manga and squeezing spots, but it's what me and my accountant came up with when we did the business plan.

I'd happily tell retailers how much I pay the same printer several top US publishers use (and those US publishers are getting prices heaps cheaper than me) and how between them, they're using retailers to fund their yachts, holiday mansions, cocaine and prostitute habits. I would like retailers to support my books, either through the 50% discount scheme we offer (that's 15% more than you-know-who will ever give you and our terms are more generous), or because they see me putting my money where my mouth is and delivering the quality I'm banging on about.

Borderline Press - supporting retailers; doing what's right for creators; trying to make everyone happy (some of the time).

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