Nimbleness Amid Disaster

By | Tuesday, March 31, 2020 Leave a Comment
Map of US Stay at Home orders
The map here shows places in the US (in red) where there is some kind of "Stay at Home" order from the state or local government or (in yellow) where there are mandatory "non-essential" business closures. That's as of yesterday mid-day. The colored portions of the map represent 77% of the population.

This obviously impacts a very wide swath of people. Looking at just the obvious ones tied to the comics industry, there's retailers who can't open their shops, distribution workers whose warehouses are closed down, creators who can't attend now-cancelled conventions... With the primary distribution network down, publishers and the freelance creators that work for them, don't have any way to ship their comics so, while they all can work from home readily enough, there's nothing to do with their comics once they've finished them. Consequently, many (most? all?) creators have been given a "pencils down" order. Basically, don't bother actually working on your comics now because we don't know if/when they'd actually ever get published.

However, there has been discussions and rumors going around that some of the larger publishers might continue comics production again, either using digital only and/or other distribution channels. There's nothing solid on either of those fronts as far as I'm aware as of this writing, but it's led to a great deal of speculation. Retailers are, not surprisingly, worried that if their regular customers switch over to digital channels, there will be no way to get them back into physical stores. Others throw out that, to date, there's been almost no overlap in print and digital customer bases so that won't happen. Still others have suggested that some kind of split-proposition might be feasible -- where readers pay for physical books by calling their local shop, get a voucher for reading the digital versions now, but then don't pick up their physical copies until shops re-open.

The alternate distribution channel thing is a whole other can of worms. Will that open up the distribution market so that both retailers and publishers have more leverage? Where retailers could demand, for example, that all publisher titles are sold on a returnable basis? Could publishers demand, from the other end, that the distributor take a smaller cut of the profits, making comics more profitable for the publishers? There's less than zero concrete information here right now.

Fanboys versus Zombies #2
All of that is up in the air right now -- not to mention that we still have no real idea on when this pandemic might come under control and, by extension, how long it will disrupt the flow of business -- so it's impossible to predict at this point what the industry will look like a month... three months... six months... a year from now. How many businesses won't be able to survive? How many publishers? How many creators start pursuing other lines of work just to make sure they have income? There are so many variables at play at the moment, I think anyone could make any sort of wild guess and they'd be just as likely as any other. Hell, at this point, you can't even rule out the comics industry being a moot point because zombies have overrun the entire planet!

In a recent Mile High Comics newsletter, Chuck Rozanski noted that, for the past decade, he's deliberately tried to pare down his new comics sales. He said, "we have since reduced new comics to less than 20% of our gross revenues, and pretty much zero as regards our earnings... we have invested huge sums of our precious working capital into purchasing vast quantities of back issue comics, graphic novels, toys, statues, and other pop culture merchandise. In effect, we converted our entire business into a “pop culture repurposing center,” with our core business now being focused on helping to facilitate secondary market..." In other words, new comics has become a fairly negligible part of his business and he spends most of his time/effort buying back issues and the like to re-sell. Did he know a pandemic was going to sweep through the nation and substantially disrupt the comics industry? Almost certainly not. But he did see the weakness of the direct market system, and tried to plan around that.

I began suggesting nearly fifteen years ago that comic shops needed to be more than places that just sell comics. That a good portion of the reason people like going to a comic shop week in and week out is the communal atmosphere. Where you walk in and everybody yells, "Norm!" Where you can sit down and order a burger while you read the latest issue of Superman. One of the reasons I've been saying that is because new comics simply cannot be your sole means of income. And I don't even say that because of the direct market problems specifically, but because as a business, you should never rely on a single revenue source like that.

Here in the 21st century, most business gurus will tell you that both you as an individual and businesses of all sorts need to be nimble. That the pace of technology is such that major disruptors can come along at any time from anywhere, and can completely up-end your business. And while that advice is generally given in terms of other businesses either taking over or eliminating the need for your niche, it also works well in time like we're experiencing now -- where the status of a pandemic changes on a daily basis.

I'm not judging comics folks -- at any level: retailer, creator, publisher, etc. -- for not being more nimble to better weather this storm. Comics is an insanely difficult business in the best of times, and many, many people simply cannot get far enough ahead to start the planning necessary to be nimble. US culture/society is honestly not built for getting ahead; it's built to hold people in their place precisely so they can't get ahead. This cornoavirus pandemic is a major disruptor for the entire country, not just the comics industry. And it will sadly shutter tens of thousands of businesses and tragically kill hundreds of thousands of people. And it won't be the fault of those businesses who never open their doors again, but it is worth taking a look at what happened to them as a broader learning of how the US economy actually works. And while no one can predict what will happen next in this nightmare roller coaster that is 2020, hopefully you might be able to glean at least a few insights on what direction you need to be headed for when the next disaster strikes.
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