I'll start off my column this month by telling a brief story: About eight years ago, I was invited by DC Comics to participate in their Retailer Roundtable Program (RRP). The RRP is a small group of comics retailers specially selected by the DC staff to provide feedback at semi-annual meetings. DC had already been hosting these programs for several years at the point that they finally asked us to participate, so I was acutely aware that I needed to be especially diplomatic in my comments if I ever wanted anyone from Mile High Comics to be asked to again participate in these closed feedback sessions. Despite my reticence at speaking out, however, the marketing folks at DC finally managed to push one of my personal "buttons" so hard that my irritation overwhelmed my caution.
The topic that set me off was a presentation by the DC marketing staff of their newest POP (Point of Purchase) displays. As they waxed eloquent about the great job they had done in creating wonderful counter display boxes for upcoming DC products, I went through an increasingly intense slow burn. When the subject of promotional posters was also broached, I simply couldn't restrain myself any further. I raised my hand, and when called upon I asked "so how much are we going to be paid for maximizing the exposure of DC products in our stores?"
Suffice it to say, the very concept of discussing that a comics company would pay retailers for premium in-store exposure was not popular with the DC executive team. You see, when an entire community has been hoodwinked into giving away for free a precious commodity for which manufacturers of all other consumer products have to pay dearly, raising the screen of ignorance directly threatens those who have benefited from the naivete of the victims. In this case, however, DC had little to worry about from my comments. While most of the retailers in the room clearly understood that all mass retailers are paid by manufacturers for the premium exposure by their counters, there was no particular impetus toward pushing DC (or Marvel and the other publishers...) to pay Rack Display Allowance (RDA) credits. In point of fact, most of the retailers at that particular RRP exhibited far more fanboy interest in how cool the new displays were, than in any notion of receiving recompense for granting DC the best display spots in their store(s). Sigh...
While my quest for RDA credits with any of the publishers has been a total failure, one area in which I've seen a significant level of progress by publishers in helping retailers is in the area of alternate covers. Over the past decade comics publishers have voluntarily increased their output of premium cover editions that they pass on to retailers, usually for only a nominal cost, or even sometimes for free. DC, for example, has helped offset the travel costs of retailers attending the RRP meetings by providing one copy per retailer of an extremely limited edition cover of a selected very popular DC title. The benefit these limited editions can provide retailers are quite significant. As an example, the last time I looked the RRP edition of Batman #608 was selling for over $500 per copy on eBay. When we sold our copy we covered the cost of our airfares, and the rental car as well. That still left us a little in the hole for attending the RRP, but there were clearly many other benefits for attending, so I'm more than satisfied with the help that DC provided us.
More recently, Marvel Comics has been producing an entire series of incentive covers designed to encourage retailers to take on the added risk of ordering selected new Marvel titles. This program is still in its infancy, but if the two-hour meeting I had last week at the Marvel executive conference room is any indication, many more premium incentives for comics retailers are coming from Marvel. Better yet, the new executive team at Marvel is acutely aware of the market for comics collectibles, and has promised to make darn sure that any book touted as a "limited edition" will actually have a very small quantity produced. In fact, if they act upon my suggestion, many of Marvel's upcoming retailer incentive books (as well as Marvel 2nd printings) will have clearly defined limited print runs guaranteeing their genuine scarcity. This will help protect consumers from the scams that sometimes occurred during the 1990's, when many "limited editions" had print runs dictated only by how many were ultimately ordered.
While I view this trend toward publishers creating alternate covers as a way of helping retailers as a great step forward, there has been one sour note. Two months ago the staff at DIAMOND PREVIEWS made an incredibly stupid blunder, and listed the ultra-scarce variant edition of ASTONISHING X-MEN #1 an item that consumers could ostensibly order for cover price. In point of fact, comics retailers had to be willing to accept the risk of ordering an extraordinary number of copies of Uncanny X-Men #444, X-Men #157, or New X-Men: Academy #1 in order to qualify to purchase even a single copy of this genuinely rare book. Nonetheless, because it was offered by Diamond, some consumers took great umbrage when we wouldn't sell them that rare retailer incentive book for cover price, and instead listed it at a stiff premium in our back issue department.
This is where conflict arises because perspectives differ. As the largest comics retailer in the country, I am well aware of the financial weakness in the overall comics retailer community. Over the past two years that I've been writing this column I've touched upon this subject several times, making no attempt to conceal the fact that the future of our entire industry is resting upon the shoulders of approximately 1,000 comics retailers, many of whom can barely cover their weekly new comics bill. The fact that the publishers have at long last discovered a low cost method for them to financially help retailers build their capitalization base delights me. That having been said, I can also understand the anger of individual fans who discover that retailers are receiving these books that they sell for significant premiums at little, or no, directly attributable cost.
As for a resolution of this situation, I simply do not believe that there is any middle ground to be found. There will always be some fans who think that retailers selling the books they've received as sales incentives for a premium is wrong. In fact, there are still some members of the comics retailing community who suffer from guilt at the thought of actually being paid by the comics publishers for taking on additional risk. That number is steadily dwindling, however, as a growing number of those comics retailers who do not avail themselves of the financial incentives that they have earned join the ranks of the unemployed. While I think those retailers hastened their own financial demise through poor decisions, I still very much regret their departure from our community. No matter how much we may disagree on certain subjects, the fact remains that the world of comics needs every retailer right now. I very much hope that all comics publishers continue to provide retailers with sales incentives through limited promotional editions, and that collectors come to a greater understanding of the financial needs of comics retailers. Limited promotional books will not solve all of the financial problems of the comics retailer community, but I believe that they are an excellent step in the right direction.
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Mile High Comics, Inc.
Attn: Chuck Rozanski
2151 W. 56th Ave.
Denver, CO 80221