Monday, 30 May 2016

Distribution: "It's Just Business"

High Society Ad
Cerebus #86 (May 1986)
(from Al Nickerson's Creator's Bill Of Rights Blog, 23 April 2005)
...The first draft of the Creative Manifesto [the precursor to the Creators' Bill Of Rights] was a communal effort on the part of Kevin Eastman, Pete Laird, Steve Bissette, John Totelben, Michael Zulli and Stephen Murphy and myself -- with supplemental input from Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Dave Gibbons, Steven Grant and others -- in response to Diamond raising the possibility of not carrying the Puma Blues because I was selling the High Society trade direct to Cerebus readers and not offering it through the direct market. Essentially the Manifesto was an attempt to determine what rights and obligations each level of the direct market "food chain" had in dealing with each other. This was the first time that a creator who was also a publisher had had a serious contretemps in dealing with a distributor. As a publisher, it seemed to me that what I had found was a "more direct market" which allowed me to make enough money per book to pay the largest printing bill I had ever had to pay up to that time. It wasn’t that I hadn't offered the book to the direct market -- I had -- but the direct market had ordered a very small number of copies, too small to pay the printing bill. In effect what they were saying was: we want you to assume all of the debt and make the books available to us and we’ll order them as we need them. Since the stores had always, in my experience, under-ordered Cerebus, it was an open-ended question as to how long it was going to take to sell six thousand copies of a $25 comic book through them. There were no $25 comic books being sold at the time and, much like today, virtually all of the retailers’ attentions were taken up with Marvel and DC so I decided to offer the books direct to the Cerebus readers and, as a result, instead of coming up short on the printing bill, I turned a $100,000 profit. It was particularly bothersome at the time because the distributors and the stores were always telling me "it's just business" when they would cut their orders or demand a higher discount or register whatever other complaint they had and use whatever leverage they had to make me toe the line. But when the shoe was on the other foot, they presented it as a loyalty thing. I was being disloyal to the stores by selling direct to my own readers. Well, why was it disloyal for me to sell direct to my readers when it was "just business" when the distributors would cut their orders or insist on a higher discount or demand that we pay shipping or whatever else? To me, I had made a no-brainer of a business decision. Go into debt to print the trade paperback and then sit and wait for the stores to order them two or three at a time or sell all six thousand in a month or so and turn a $100,000 profit. Basically, the universal retailer position was -- or seemed to be -- that I was obligated to sell them everything that I published no matter how few copies they ordered. I basically pulled Kevin and Peter into the discussion -- the only other self-publishers who were in the category of being a significant profit centre for Diamond -- as a means of determining if that was a valid criticism and, if it wasn't, to have more than just my own voice opposing it because at that point it was "Dave against everyone and everyone against Dave". The Creative Manifesto attempted to draw lines between what a creator-publisher could do and what he should do. It was entirely legal for me to sell my book direct to the readers, the question was: was it ethical to do so? I was giving the retailer position the benefit of the doubt: they might be right that I was behaving unethically, in which case I was willing to revisit the question but only if some consensus could be achieved as to where my ethical obligations to the retailers began and ended. In my own view -- since this situation had never come up before and was likely to come up again for future self-publishers -- I couldn't just cave in because it would establish a precedent that in effect would say, "A creator-publisher must always do what the retailers want no matter how unsound it is from the self-publisher’s business standpoint." If that was the foundation of the retailer position then I would have to argue strenuously on behalf of all future creator-publishers to keep from having the retailers use me as the template. "Dave caved in and gave us the books, so that means you have to, too. It’s how the direct market does business." Kevin and Peter understood what I was talking about and also understood that they had a lot more to lose than I did if a precedent was established since they were just beginning to branch out into the real world. What if the retailers decided that they had to be offered everything with the Turtles on it on direct market terms or they would stop distributing the Turtles comic books? That much retailer control was unacceptable to me and to Kevin and Peter, but how much control should the retailers have and how much control should the distributors have and how much should we have? The issue was a dispute about how business was conducted between creator-publishers and distributors and retailers. It became complicated because we had to dissect the problem into its component parts in a way that was nearly Biblical: "In the beginning there is the Work…" and then to follow the Work from the point of creation through to the time that it’s purchased by a consumer. The fact that Steve Bissette, a DC freelancer, came into the discussion early on meant that we got distracted from what we were talking about and drawn into a much larger discussion. I was willing participate in the larger discussion as long as the larger discussion also addressed the question of the borderline between creating, publishing and distributing. When Scott showed up with his Bill of Rights it made the process a lot simpler from my standpoint. All I had to do was to get a right included that said "We have the right to control the means of distribution of our work." That got watered down to "We have the right to choose the means of distribution of our work" which was fine by me. That was the answer that I had been looking for when the process got started. I had the right to choose to sell the High Society trade paperback direct to my own readers. Kevin and Peter promptly published a hardcover of the complete Turtles and sold it direct to their readers, helping to reinforce the point -- we have the right to do this. Because Scott was and still is a freelancer who has no contact with the distribution side he never understood that there is a meeting place between the creative and distribution side of the comic-book field if you publish your own work and that a line had to be drawn in the sand to keep the retailers and distributors from establishing rules that said that "creator-publishers must always do what retailers and distributors tell them to do."...


Mouse Skull Entertainment said...

This is one of those stories that always makes me appreciate that I live in a world that has Dave Sim in it.

Matt Dow

Jeff Seiler said...

Amen, brother.