Dean Phillips of Krypton Comics attended the recent Diamond-Alliance Retailer Summit in Las Vegas (see 'Diamond-Alliance Las Vegas Summit Wraps'), and shared his experiences, especially as they relate to outreach advertising by comic publishers:

Retailer Summit 2003.  It's in Las Vegas.  What's not to like?  I've never been to a retailer summit and was pretty charged up to attend.  I couldn't wait to hear what some of the most illustrious minds in the comic/game industry were going to say about the state of union.  At the same time, I had some important questions about what I perceive as a growing sense of *disunity* on the part of independent store owners like myself.

I finally got to meet my DC comic rep Mike. Great guy.  He really knows what sells and what doesn't.  He even took us out to dinner on Saturday night before the summit.  I told Mike I was really looking forward to the summit because I had a few comments and questions.  Mike told me to go ahead, that I was eating on DC's dime, and to ask away.  I warned him that all I wanted was a nice dinner with my rep, but since he asked for it...

I jumped right in and asked him why DC Comics pays money to large *book* retailers like Barnes & Noble or Borders for product placement of something like Sandman: Endless Nights, but won't spend the money on additional media to get customers into dedicated *comic* retailers.  In other words, why is DC actively drawing customers away from its traditional, proven markets?
Mike replied that the money DC spent with Borders and B&N was aimed indirectly at comic retailers.  He said the logic was that consumers would buy the new book from the large retailers, then flock to the dedicated comic store for the rest of the books because comic stores have more 'comics-related' variety.  So I said, well Mike, what's to stop me from going back to that same store for the other graphic novels?  Mike said DC puts the Comic Shop Locator service number in the books.

But what about the person who's never been in a comic store, or hasn't been in one for a long time?  What sort of message does it send to that person when they see marketing material telling them to hit Borders or B&N with no mention of the alternate independent outlets?  First impressions are key.  That consumer will, with a high degree of statistical
probability, return to the Borders or the B&N to pick up the rest of the Sandman series.

To the average independent comic shop owners, what does all of this look like?  Let's not be coy.  It looks an awful lot like one multi-million dollar company taking care of another based purely on market-based profit projections.  The reality is that in spite of my own considerable efforts to increase market awareness of my comic store, I simply haven't seen these new customers Mike was talking about.

So I asked Mike, what is DC going to do to bring new customers to the industry?  It needs to expand or die.  Mike told me DC practically printed us money when they had Jim Lee doing Batman.  He said that this costs DC a bundle, and asked me if I'd sold a lot of Batman, to which I replied that I had.  But I asked him again, what money was DC going to spend to get *new* customers in the door?  The Batman sales were based on regulars, not new customers.  That grew the Batman market, not the *overall* market.  What was DC going to do in terms of TV ads, radio spots, and print ads?  Mike told me he didn't think DC would be doing much, because it's expensive to advertise that way.

My response: if DC is unwilling to promote this business, how can I?  Mike told me that Bob Wayne, VP of sales and marketing, would be at the summit, and to ask him these same questions.  So I did.  More on that in a moment, but back to Batman for a second.

Jim Lee doing the art on Batman was great, but whom did DC tell about this event?  Wizard?  Comic Shop News?  Various online comic websites?  We have to stop preaching to the choir.  These are all great tools, but I didn't have anyone new coming into my store and saying, 'Hey, I hear Jim Lee is drawing Batman.  I used to collect comics and because of this event, I'm back!'

Fast forward to Monday morning at the retailer summit.  The first seminar was about how to make Free Comic Book Day better, hosted by Joe Field.  Again I was very exited to meet and hear from the retailers as well as Mr. Field.  The first question out of a retailer in the room was 'Why can't we move FCBD to May?  That would work better for my store.'  Before anyone could respond directly, several others chimed in with the same sentiment.  Many retailers brought up good arguments for FCBD in May.  Having the FCBD in the same time each year creates a certain regularity and familiarity.  *Thirty* minutes of this back and forth banter later, and finally Mr. Field has to say, 'Ok, we get it.  Some of you would have liked May better.  Me too.  I believe we gave in to Marvel and we're helping them promote Spider-Man.  Not the other way around.  This is about how to deal with July 3rd and make it a great promotion for everyone.'

Another comment from the crowd was, 'The colors of the banner have been changed from red to purple.  Can we not change colors each year?  I want to use my signs from last year.'  Thus ensued quite a bit more talking for and against the colors.  Mr. Field puts it to a vote.  The red won!

So, the seminar was almost over, and we finally got an idea or two from the retailers.  A couple we even wrote down and will probably use.  Mr. Field had one last thing to discuss, which I will attempt to summarize from recollection here.

Evidently, there could be a fund taken from one cent of each FCBD comic sold.  Two million comics sold last year for FCBD translates to $20,000 for advertising.  This seems like a lot of money but it is a small drop in a large bucket when it comes to a national advertising campaign.
Mr. Field asked us who would be willing to spend an extra two cents a book?  Many hands went up, mine included.  Mr. Field then upped the ante to a whopping three cents per book.  Several hands went down, but not mine.  Mr. Field, certainly sensing at this point the tepid support for the idea, tried four cents on the group.  My hand stayed high in the air next to maybe one or two others. 


Seminar over.

Afterthought:  We're supposed to represent the best and brightest comic retailers in the country and all we can do is argue about the colors of the signs and the date FCBD is on?  The majority voted and July 3rd won.  I understand the May date brings a regular time period to hold FCBD.  I've been in this business long enough to know that people love free stuff.  They seem to really like free comic books.  I don't think the general public is waiting with bated breath for May so that FCBD will come along.  The simple fact is that the general public will take free comics whenever you're willing to give them away (Atomic Comics has proven this by holding FCBD2 in October to resounding success).

The fact that most retailers didn't want to spend four cents extra per book frankly shocked me.  We need to advertise the comic industry on a major scale.  I was willing to go ten cents each or higher.

I'm throwing down the gauntlet and addressing this to retailers, publishers, distributors and myself: are you, or are you not really serious about doing this for a living?  FCBD is the best thing to happen to this backward industry in years.  Get behind it, spend what money you can on it or get out.

The Diamond and Alliance meeting was very interesting.  It was somewhat a commercial for ordering more product, and more of a question and answer group.  They touched on the comic shop locator service, Previews convenience, and general concerns.  When I asked where they were using the Comic Shop Locator, the answer as 'in all kinds of places.'  Most really make sense.  Comic related toys, trade paperbacks and graphic novels works for me, but again, isn't this still a bit like preaching to the choir?  I would love the comic locator on comic related video games, clothing, and in front of movies.  That sort of thing I think might work as well.  Think outside the obvious choices when you're thinking about ways to spread the word about comics.  You don't grow a market by blitzing to its core audience.

Marvel Comics removing themselves from Previews was also discussed.  The reasons for and against were bantered around.  I told the Diamond reps to tell Marvel that Krypton Comics in Omaha, Nebraska doesn't like them being separate from the rest of the book.  Bob Wayne (DC comics VP of sales) quipped that Marvel probably wouldn't listen to a store called Krypton Comics because of the store name, which got a big laugh.  Someone else commented that Marvel responded by NOT attending the conference, and that the retailers weren't important enough to bother with.

Seminar over.

Afterthought: The representatives of Diamond and Alliance really acted as if they were listening to every word said in the discussion.  They wrote comments down like crazy.  Whether they were paying attention and will pass it on remains to be seen.  The fact that reps from Dark Horse, Image and DC were there says to me they care at least a little.

Sunday was the last day of the summit.  There's a big area set aside for vendors to display their wares.  It is also a great opportunity for retailers to get up close and personal to creators of some of your customers' favorite books.  Steve Niles, Kurt Busiek, Darwyn Cooke, Dave Bullock and Bill Willingham were among the Special guests.  No long fan filled lines.  It was really nice.  My manager and I tried to meet each one and thank them for what they do.  Business cards were flying everywhere.  Good fun.  Free comics and samples of games and toys loaded us down.


A couple of conversations were very important to me.  Jim Valentino from Image was very pleasant and we had a great time discussing a few new products. He was excited about the prospects for the future of Image and comics in general.

I then made a beeline back to Bob Wayne.

Me:  Thank you so much for being here.  It is really great to be able to talk to DC on a personal level like this.  You don't have to be here, but you are.  Other publishers didn't show up for the summit and I think that proves their commitment to the retailers.

Bob:  DC is here to listen.  You aren't mad about that Marvel comment are you?

Me:  Not at all.  It was really funny.  Other retailers came over to me and we had a good laugh about it.  You took the time to sit in on the seminars and paid attention to what was being said.  So, I'm curious about what DC comics is doing to promote comics in the mass media?

Bob:  I've been trying to get some promotion on Smallville.

Me:  That's exactly what I am talking about!!!
Bob:  It's so tough to get done.  Don't think I haven't sat in on those meetings, I have.  There are different divisions of Warner.  The TV side uses the music from that division in the episodes in exchange for advertising the music at the end of the episode.  The TV division has no reason to advertise the comic book division.
Me:  What about the Teen Titans cartoon and that sort of thing?

Bob:  There are all kinds of laws about what you can advertise on a program geared towards children.  We're trying.

Me:  Please keep at it.  We need the help.

Afterthought:  The way I see it, the source material for the TV shows is coming from the comic books.  That should be reason enough to advertise on shows like Smallville, Teen Titans and future movie projects.  If a multi-million dollar company like Time Warner or Marvel doesn't want to invest some money in the comic book side of their own companies, then how can they expect the small business owner to do it?  The big companies might see comics as only a breeding ground for ideas to turn into TV shows and movies.  How do the retailers get across to the company owners that if they don't spend some money to advertise how great this medium is, it's going to die?  The retailers cannot, and should not, be held responsible for every bit of advertising.  Retailers on a regular basis send out press releases, go to libraries to give speeches, put flyers on cars, and send out mailings.  We do what we can on a local level to spout the virtues of this business.  It's our livelihood, after all, but we simply can't do it alone.  DC, Marvel, Image, Dark Horse and the other companies need to get the word out to the masses.  Keep making movies and TV shows.  We love them, support them and advertise them.  Spend some money to support and advertise for the retailers.  If you won't, at least let us know so we can find a different way to make a living.

I have a few ideas for everyone:

First, we need to get that fund set up, much like the proposed FCBD fund where one cent (or more, remember I'm willing to go ten or higher!) of each comic sold goes to advertising in the mass media.  TV, radio, and newspaper advertising isn't going to save the comic market, but coupled with retailers' local advertising it's a start.

Second, comic companies could match funds and have their characters featured in certain ads.  Could this work?  I believe it can.  Are there problems with the idea?  Sure, but I believe we can -- we must -- work out the details.

Any other ideas on this scale would be great.  The retailers need to get Diamond and the comic companies' attention.  The powers that be need to see that there is a problem with the way the comic industry is promoted.  Throw some great ideas at them and something might stick.  FCBD stuck and is wonderful.  Let's keep the momentum going.  Do mass promotions throughout the year.  Listen to other retailers.  I highly recommend going to a retailer summit if you haven't before.  Retailers have to band together to make changes in this business.  Publishers need to hear our voices, and we need to hear what they are saying to us.

Even if we don't like what we hear.

The opinions expressed in this Talk Back article are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of